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The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Review by Judy Newton
Harvest Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 015602943X
Date: 27 May, 2004 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

There is a certain level of hell reserved for mainstream authors who attempt to write genre fiction. They are convinced that, since they can write general fiction well, they can write science fiction (or romance, or westerns) splendidly. After all, it's just formula, isn't it?

But instead of knocking off a great genre novel, they write themselves in circles trying to reinvent tropes already well developed by generations before them, and by being ignorant of the past, they are doomed to repeat it, poorly (even though the books may become bestsellers). Several examples lately have prompted me to propose the establishment of a new genre altogether: "NOT science fiction."

This new genre is recognizable by several earmarks. The book is marketed as a mainstream novel. Often, it is written by a well-established author. The publisher claims it transcends the genre: never mind that it is set in the future or a mythical past, includes space travel, alternate history, magic working (oops, that would be "NOT fantasy")...

Or time travel - which brings us to The Time Traveler's Wife. Although this is Ms. Niffenegger's first novel, it fits the profile otherwise pretty well. Unlike many "NOT science fiction" books, however, this one is a good enough story that it can be forgiven its galloping cluelessness.

Clare first meets Henry when she is a girl of six and Henry is an adult. Since Henry is a time traveler, however, the age difference is minimized when Clare is twenty and meets Henry again in "real time." Since this meeting occurs before the first time Henry meets Clare while time traveling, Henry is as confused as the reader might be if Ms. Niffenegger were a less skillful writer. To her credit, she keeps one’s attention on the evolving relationship despite the inherent confusion in documenting Henry’s multiple time trips. Even so, as the story of their relationship unfolds, it becomes increasingly harder to sort out the tangles in the time lines. The reader's attention is more likely to be centered on Clare's desire to have a child, and Henry's deteriorating physical condition as years of being whipped back and forth in time take their toll. Each unexpected trip leaves him naked in an unpredictable time and place. Sometimes he meets a younger or older version of himself, and is able to learn from or teach his other self. Often, he returns to a scene of emotional intensity in his past or visits Clare as she grows up.

The revelation of the mechanism which forces him to spontaneously dischronate will make science fiction fans snort in derision. This, even more than the time-travel paradoxes violated every now and then, will make it hard to get through the book. I was with it, though, right to the end, where it let me down on the romantic relations aspect of the story. Still, though, it was worth the time spent.

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