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Essay On Time Travelers Wife

I have just finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Some months ago I co-founded a rather studious book club, and this one has been nominated a number of times without ever being selected for group discussion. I had a vague understanding of the premise, and it sounded appealing. I decided to pick up a copy and see what all the fuss was about.

My goodness, there is a lot to fuss about.

Just to emphasize my emphasis, I bought the book less than twenty-four hours ago. Fifty pages in I knew whatever else I planned to do with those twenty-four hours was going to have to be put on the back burner. I needed to see this thing through as quickly as possible.

The book was published in 2003 to rave reviews and was made into a movie I’m told I shouldn’t watch in 2009, so I imagine many of you reading this already know what it’s all about. For everyone else, the novel is about a man named Henry DeTamble with a rare genetic disorder that causes him under certain stimuli to become unstuck in time, flashing forwards or more usually backwards through a span of roughly a century to any number of places throughout the United States’ Midwest. He cannot control where or when he appears, naked and disoriented, but the journeys are guided in some way by his subconscious. More often than not he appears in the vicinity of people and places who have great importance in his life: His mother who dies in a car wreck; himself at a younger age; the Art Institute of Chicago, but most often –or at least it features most prominently in the novel– in the meadow behind the house where his future wife lives.

Clare Abshire first meets Henry at six years old, and over the next twelve years their friendship evolves from an almost imaginary friend through to a guardian angel, and then eventually and inevitably into a crush that moves through her teenage lust into something adult and mature. On her eighteenth birthday he tells her they will not see one another again for two years and two months, and the Henry she meets at that point will be the Henry in the here and now –a Henry only eight years older than her who lives in Chicago– and he begs her to have mercy on him. He isn’t the man Clare knows yet, but he will become that person with her help.

Clare does meet the contemporary Henry after beginning university in Chicago, and their life together begins in both an ordinary and extraordinary way. Throughout their lives together it is understood that at any point he might disappear almost without warning, leaving a puddle of clothes behind. Sometimes he’s gone minutes, and sometimes hours, and sometimes days. When he reappears, he often bears the scars of his misadventures. She likens the waiting to women of previous centuries who married men who went to sea and spent long periods waiting and worrying and watching the horizon for a distant sail.

More than that I will not say. Read the book. You will not regret it.

Now I entitled this blog post, “An Essay on Writing by Way of the Time Traveler’s Wife,” and I do want to talk about writing in some depth. Many of you know that I’ve written a couple ofnovels myself, and when I read a book now, I read it as an author admiring another author’s craft. There is a bit of armchair quarterbacking involved, of course, but there is also a deep appreciation for the process and the art. I once had a trumpet player tell me I couldn’t be a real Beatles fan because I wasn’t a musician. I find that a laughable claim, but I will admit in the same way musicians can enjoy music with a fuller understanding of the mechanics involved, so too do writers appreciate books in a different way than other readers. We ponder motive, pacing, plotting, character arcs, prose, perspective. We wonder why something was done this way and not another. We peer between the lines to look at the author on the other side and ask, ‘What are you really trying to say?’

This is Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel, and she’s been very open and honest about her process. This book revolves around Chicago –her current home– and South Haven, Michigan, her childhood home. Clare is an artist whose principle medium is paper, and Henry works as a librarian specializing in antiquarian collections. Both of these are passions of Niffenegger, who is herself a professor in the Interdisciplinary Book Arts MFA Program at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts and a faculty member of the North Shore Art League where she teaches intermediate and advanced printmaking. Clare was raised Catholic, and Henry hovers somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. The two together are how Niffeneggar describes herself.

Going further, in her acknowledgements at the end of the book Niffeneggar thanks a record store and book store owner –both of whom appear briefly in the novel. The Chicago hot spots and neighbourhoods and landmarks come thick and fast, because they are her world as much as Henry’s and Clare’s. She admits she wrote the novel as an extended metaphor for her own failed love affairs. “I had kind of got the idea that there’s not going to be some fabulous perfect soul mate out there for me, so I’ll just make him up.” She has said in an interview. She drew in aspects of her own childhood, her own parents, and then used the idea of time travel as a vehicle to talk about love and loss and faith and perseverance.

It is an achingly beautiful story, well crafted, well told, with room for the reader to find a place in an intimate world between two friends and lovers. There is triumph. There is tragedy. There is conflict, and turmoil, and there is an eventual acceptance of the things that cannot change and will have to be lived around.

I am deeply moved, and I’m also deeply moved to consider my own writing process in contrast to this fine novel.

I have never been interested in writing things from my own life. My geography, my upbringing, my friends and loved ones do not factor into my storytelling except in the most passing of ways. I’m tempted now to trim my sails somewhat and see where that takes me. I have half a dozen projects in the works that I refer to as my third novel. The one I’ve been working on most lately is built around the idea of a man who has a genetic mutation much like Henry, except instead of flashing forward and backward through time my protagonist has the great misfortune to live for thousands upon thousands of years. An embarrassing early draft of the first couple of chapters appear on this blog from my NaNoWriMo 2010 attempt. The short strokes of the story as it is evolving is that this man –who has lived quietly as best he can from the last Ice Age until today– knows he will finally die in a few days time. He has a tape recorder. What would he want to say, now that there is no fear in sharing the truth about who he is and what he’s seen? What is the legacy he would leave for the future to contemplate?

I have the history down, and I see great opportunities to tie in any number of great little stories I know about our shared human experience that I couldn’t write a whole book about but that a chapter would come free and fast. My trouble is that devolves into a mess of short stories, and I’m not a great short story writer. I need an overarching narrative, and I’ve been fumbling that for two years now. I wonder if The Time Traveler’s Wife has shown me how to take a story of people at different points in time interacting meaningfully over an immense span of history. All drama worth a reader’s time is about characters in conflict, but how can I keep that relevant to someone who will outlive everyone he ever knows and loves? I’ve struggled with that question for a long while, and I’m still not quite sure I have the answer.  I’m going to chew on it for a spell longer, but I suspect very strongly Audrey Niffenegger’s work has given me the germ of an idea.

Anyway, I’m excited about it, and this book helped. I wanted to blog about it.


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The Time Traveler’s Wife Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Aubrey Niffenegger.

Aubrey Niffenegger’s debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) was a runaway bestseller and adapted to a major film in 2009. Niffenegger wrote it while going through an emotionally distant and complicated relationship.

Blending elements of realism, science fiction, and romance, Niffenegger’s major themes include the uncontrollable nature of love, the precariousness of free will, and the inevitable miscommunications between any two people.

Henry DeTamble and Clare Anne Abshire “meet” in a library in Chicago. In the prologue, the reader learns that Clare’s narrative is chronological while Henry is atemporal.

In alternating first person perspectives, the reader quickly discovers that they have met before. Clare is thrilled to meet him, but Harry, a librarian, believes that they are strangers. Clare, an art student who makes paper sculptures, says she has known him since 1977, when she was six.

Henry agrees to go to dinner with her. She claims she knows all about his time traveling disorder, and that they first met when he was forty-three and she was six. As proof, she shows him a diary that shows all the dates of his visits. Freaked out but attracted to her, Henry asks if they can pretend this is their first date. She agrees, and the two discuss their respective families. They visit Henry’s messy apartment and make love.

Henry recalls the very first time he time traveled. He was five. His parents took him to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Suddenly, Henry was a teenager taking a job working at the museum. A twenty-four-year-old Henry explained to him that he is a time traveler and he cannot tell anyone. His older self gives him the skills he needs to survive: dodging the police, stealing, robbery.

When Henry is forty-three, he finds himself in a meadow near Clare’s childhood home on Lake Michigan. Clare is six, and Henry takes care not to disturb her too much when he asks borrow her picnic blanket to cover himself. He explains he is a time-traveler and tells her the dates of his future appearances. Henry vanishes right in front of her. Days pass, and Clare prepares to greet Henry again with a pair of her father’s clothes. When he reappears, Clare believes his story.

When and where Henry travels to is beyond his control; it seems, though, to be tied to his subconscious moods. When overly stressed, he goes jogging so as not to time travel.

As a child and adolescent, Clare spends a lot of time with forty-three-year-old Henry. He does not tell her the details of their relationships and she likes him. She is judged to be odd by her peers for not liking boys her own age. As Clare grows, she makes advances toward Henry that he rebuffs while assuring that he loves her.

Around Christmas, Clare hides Henry in her parents’ reading room. She learns that he despises Christmas because it is the day that his mother died when he was six. He lived only because he time traveled. He feels guilty over the accident and thinks he should have died with her.

As an art student in college, Clare invites Henry to meet her friends and family. Her roommate’s boyfriend, Gomez, dislikes Henry because he has seen him steal clothes and beat up people for cash. Gomez confronts Henry, and Henry reveals his identity; he also time travels in front of Gomez. This only makes Gomez more adamant that Henry is the wrong guy for Clare. She disagrees, and says her future self has chosen him as a partner.

After Henry meets her parents, the two are married, though Clare marries an older version of Henry because the present version is time traveling.

Part two begins when the two are married. Henry is frequently gone. Clare feels trapped in their small apartment and, like her art, is not going anywhere. Henry puts his time traveling condition to good use when he gives Clare the future numbers to the Illinois lottery and she wins 8 million dollars.

Henry finds his future doctor, Dr. Kendrick, and tells him he has a time traveling condition that will be called “Chrono-Impairment.” Kendrick is disbelieving until he watches Henry disappear.

Clare wants a baby, but goes through six miscarriages because “chrono-impairment” is heredity and the developing embryo time travels out of her womb. Henry gets a vasectomy to stop giving Clare false hope. But later, a younger Henry visits Clare and impregnates her. Henry travels to the future and meets his ten-year-old daughter, Alba. She tells him that he died when she was five and he was forty-three. Devastated, Henry tries to keep his future death a secret from Clare.

When Clare finds Henry on the living room floor one day with severe frostbite, his feet have to be amputated. They both fear for his future safety; without legs, he is unlikely to survive future time travels. Dr. Kendrick says he can help Alba, but not Henry during his lifetime. After a New Year’s party, Henry senses that he will time travel and likely die. He spends his last moments with Clare. When he time travels, he is hunted and accidentally shot by her brother.

After his death, Henry frequently time travels to see Alba. Clare waits for his visits but for some reason he does not appear. When she is eighty-two, the forty-three-year-old version finally appears to comfort her.

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