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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the "love story" of Henry and Clare. Henry travels through time (against his will and beyond his control) and Clare is his all-consuming true love. They have a long path to getting together (she knows him well before he knows her - it's confusing, trust me) but then they are together and they are happy, blissfully happy. And then they are miserable. Well, technically they're still mostly happy, but a lot of terrible things happen to them, and then Henry dies. But not before he has his feet amputated. They manage to have a child, Alba, who is also a time traveler, and Alba continues to see Henry (though it is the pre-dead Henry, not a futuristic ghost) in her time travels. Clare continues to exist and sees Henry one last time when she is super-duper old.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Okay, so first of all, my apologies to those of you who may have read this book and really enjoyed it. To be fair, I was with you the first time around. It's rare that I like a book less the second time I read it (while I am a discerning reader, there are often tidbits I miss on the first take) but this was one of those rare cases.

My thoughts - my apologies that it's rather negative:

-Too one-dimensional
It's highly possible that I'm biased here, because I've never been in love. But I like to think that I exist as a person before this potential epic love, and I like to think that I'll exist after I'm part of a duo. Henry and Clare sort of just don't exist outside of each other, and I found that, frankly, boring. I didn't really believe in the side characters (Gomez, Charisse, Ingrid, etc) because I never got any background on them and never felt their thoughts or feelings. Which basically made the entire book ride on Henry and Clare, and for me, that made it flop.

-Clare defined as "not-Henry"
I don't consider myself an ardent feminist, but I have told many of my friends and family that I have no wish to be defined as Mrs. Someone Else. I must admit that titling the book, "The Time Traveler's Wife", felt a bit like calling it "Clare, the anti-heroine". It's supposedly from her perspective, but we get equal narration from Henry and Clare's point of view, and in the end, even though according to the quote on the jacket it's "A soaring celebration of the victory of love over time" (Thanks, Chicago Tribune - feel free to let me know what copy You were reading) Clare basically sits around waiting for Henry to return. For forty years. This doesn't seem much like giving Clare a chance at her own identity.

-The relationship between Henry and Henry
Just to mix things up, this is one of the parts of the book I really liked. (Although I could have done without the "isn't it so great that we can do you-know-what when we're with each other as adolescents" section.) It gave me a chance to see Henry build a relationship with someone OTHER than Clare, although ironically, it isn't really a relationship with someone else since it's actually Himself.

-Too depressing
-SPOILER ALERT: I know I'm supposed to do this part up above, but here's a list of just a few of the things that happen in this book: Henry's mom is decapitated in front of him when he is 6, Clare's mom's manic depressive and later dies of pancreatic cancer, Henry's dad's an alcoholic, Henry's ex-girlfriend commits suicide in front of him, Henry loses his feet (as in they are amputated, not misplaced), Henry knows he will die ahead of time, Clare has 5 miscarriages, all of which are disturbing and graphic, Clare ends up left behind when Henry dies. And that's NOT a complete list. I firmly believe that a book has no requirement to be happy to be of good quality, but there IS such a thing as too much tragedy.

-Reads like a screenplay
This book put it all on the table.  It didn't leave any mystery, any hint of wonder. Maybe this bothered me so much because it came on the heels of Heart of Darkness, a book that's sort of about nothing and everything all at once. It colored in all the lines and didn't leave any space to imagine or question.

-Stilted dialogue
If you want to have a book that's dialogue-heavy, the dialogue has be to be genuine. I have to believe that the characters would talk like that (I have to believe Anyone would talk like that) and I just didn't. There were inconsistencies, and a lot of the classic "people don't really talk like that" lines. I found it off-putting.

-Not careful enough with details
Again, I'm biased here because I happen to be a cellist and have a long history in stringed instruments. But if you're going to make instrumentalists semi-major characters (Alicia, Clare's sister, is a cellist; Henry's dad is a professional violinist) then at least get your facts straight. At one point, Henry suggests that he wouldn't give Alicia's tape to his dad because his dad doesn't really teach. But this makes no sense because Henry's dad is a violinist, and I've never known a violinist to teach a cellist. Violinists who teach violists/vice versa, maybe. But at the highest levels of string training? Nope. A cellist teaches a cellist.

-I don't believe you as Clare and I don't believe you as Henry
The book is told in dual narration from Clare and Henry. But going along with the dialogue comments above, I just don't find them believable. It's very hard to write as a man if you're a woman, and I don't think the author really pulled it off. I also didn't get the sense that we had any special window into Clare (even though the book was ostensibly Her Story).

-On need to conceive to be "normal"
I found it REALLY frustrating that the second half of the book's Tragic storyline is all about Clare's miscarriages. Not because miscarriages are not tragic - they 100% are. But in the case of Henry and Clare, when Henry asks if she will consider adoption after another violent and life-threatening miscarriage of Clare's, she demands that she wants at least One Normal Thing in her life, and is that really too much to ask. I just don't think that every Normal woman gets to conceive like that - snap your fingers, and ta da! Plenty of women have to use multiple rounds of in vitro, or supplemental hormones, or have missed their biological window and/or choose to adopt. Some of my very best friends are adopted and I think their mothers would be highly offended to hear Clare's depiction of its "abnormality". Biological conception is only "normal" because we say so; it isn't the only way to a loving family.

-Quotes as a crutch
Lots of writers (especially newer ones) like to use quotations, and I completely understand the draw. I write a whole blog about my favorite lines in books and I know what it's like to fall in love with a sentence, or a phrase, or a poem. In Watership Down, Richard Adams chooses quotes with a razor-like precision. He finds just the right line between foreshadowing and mystery, and he uses them before every chapter. Here, the quotes felt like a crutch - I found more beauty in the words Niffenegger chose than in the words she wrote herself.

-Suzuki crack
I was already starting to build a mental list of concerns I had at this point in the book, but the last straw was when Henry's dad makes a crack about letting a Suzuki "idiot" teach Alba to play violin. Most of my Devoted Readers know that I learned to play from the Suzuki method, as did my two older sisters. I have many fond memories of Suzuki tape sing-alongs and still carry the books in my cello case. My teachers from Suzuki camp still loom large in my mind, and while learning to read music came after memorization, the skills I gained from Suzuki and the communal joy of playing that it afforded me were well worth the wait.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer here, but I went through the whole book and there isn't a single "sentence I particularly liked". You could argue that by inciting such a vitriolic response, the book came closer to earning a spot as a classic than The Da Vinci Code. Or you could not.

Forward to Monsieur Chauzalier. C'est ça, n'est-ce pas? Non. Peut-être c'est Mademoiselle Laidevienty. Je ne sais pas!

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