Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cause and effect - The Time Traveler's Wife

I’m often drawn to stories dealing with the concept of cause and effect, and few have been as mind-bending as The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which I finally read last week.

It’s hard to explain this book if you haven’t read it …

Clare first meets Henry when she’s six and he’s thirty-six (and married to her in his present). However, Henry first meets Clare when she is twenty-two and he is thirty (they meet in his present, at which time she has known an older version of him for most of her life, from his time travelling visits).

For the first 50 pages, I just about did my head in trying to unravel the cause and effect factors: Does Clare love Henry because she meets him as a child and grows up knowing they will marry? Does Henry love Clare because she comes to him as an adult and tells him she’s been in love with an older version of him, and knows their future is together?

As Henry himself later says: “Things get kind of circular when you’re me. Cause and effect get muddled”.

For the rest of the book I (mostly) stopped worrying about the physics and allowed myself to be caught up in the dynamics of Clare and Henry’s unorthodox relationship. It’s one that crosses space and time, and it’s only at the very end that they both share the same memories (albeit experienced in different chronology).

Unlike in other time travelling stories, history can’t be changed by Henry’s movements through time. He must watch the same events over and over again, and participate in them exactly the same as other versions of himself already have (even if he has no memories of them).

If The Story of Edgar Sawtelle whispers about the philosophy of inevitability, The Time Traveler’s Wife shouts it. There’s a thread of fatalism in this story that is both comforting and deflating.

As a reader, you get to view Clare and Henry’s experiences from both sides and – like the couple themselves – only get half the story at any one time.

Almost ironically, their most precious (and often heart-breaking) moments occur not in the relationship in the present, but at moments when Henry visits Clare at different stages in her life – all of which take on greater meaning as the story unfolds.

This is certainly an original story and a unique romance. It’s poetic, erudite and very clever. It’s the sort of story that can be read several times over, if – for no other reason – than to appreciate the telling in full knowledge of the ending.

No doubt there are flaws in the time travel physics – I for one, am still trying to understand how the circular nature of their relationship started (surely it unfolded in real time at some point to be able to become circular?)

OK, my head is starting to hurt again.

I’d love to hear from people who have read this book and have an opinion, or have thoughts on the whole concept of time travel and how any story revolving around it can make sense.

4 comments:

sparsely kate said...

I own this book and read it last year...and now I feel like I need to read it again. I can't recall the ending!

I loved when Henry would visit when Clare was a little girl, there was something so sweet and clear and precious about that time. And I envied Clare that she got to love a man for all her life...from a child and up. She was blessed really.

Yep, I'm going to re read this book and freshen up my memory of it! Great post.

Placey said...

Hey Paula – one of my fave books, as you know. So I thought commenting on it would be easy. However, after sitting down for hours yesterday and getting caught with circularity and time paradox issues, I gave up and thought I’d have another crack at it today!
I have always categorised this book as being in the love story rather than sci-fi genre. However, the whole time travel dilemma is at the heart of so many of Henry and Clare’s experiences and challenges, and defines the uniqueness of their relationship.
I loved the characters of Henry and Clare, and was fascinated by the dynamics of their relationship, beginning with the older versions of Henry and his many interactions with child and teenage Clare. Whilst we watch Clare growing up we also have glimpses, as she does, into their future with future Henry’s visits.
Following 28 year old (I’ll call him time-lineal Henry) Henry’s meeting with Clare for the first time in his life, we begin their shared life of dating, marriage, house hunting, difficulties in falling pregnant, all interspersed with Henry’s inconvenient and often dangerous departures to the past and future.
The supporting characters and relationships offer plenty of interest, too – Henry and Clare’s family, friends Gomez and Charisse, Henry’s doctor, and Henry’s ex-girlfriend Ingrid.
I completely accepted Henry’s involuntary time travelling when reading the book (obviously if you can’t, reading it would be a complete waste of time), the author made the situations all so plausible. Henry and Clare’s alternating first-person narration gave us plenty of insights into their great love for each other as well as the finer points of sharing your life with someone whose past consists of many pieces of your future, and vice versa.
Having re-read chapters and passages this weekend, I’m off to join Henry and Clare again from start to finish (or should that be: middle, to start, to another start, to finish!)

Bec said...

Hi Paula!!
This is such a great book isn't it!! I have always had such issues with the whole 'time travel' notion and its 'cause and effect' paradoxes, that I long ago decided that the idea of time travel can only work for me if I give up the idea of time being a linear thing. So when reading this book I guess I had it in the back of my mind that in some way all these things were really happening kind of simultaneously, or on different 'planes of existence' (for want of a better term). And that Henry was simply falling from or to or through these planes, but always ending up near Clare, because they loved each other. And because they always had, did and would love each other, then 'time' was almost irrelevant...kind of...except that was what the whole story was about wasn't it....eeekkk....see, it still does my head in. Enough ramblings from me. Thanks for another great post!!!
XX Bec

Linda Jacobs said...

It's been a few years since I read this book but I really loved it at the time. I guess I'm a pushover for scientific things and just believed. I loved the TV program Quantum Leap and this book fed right into my naive acceptance of fantasy.

Like the others, now I want to read it again!