The Time Traveler's Wife, is the first novel of American author Audrey Niffenegger
and was published in 2003. A
love story about a man with a genetic disorder that makes him
travel in time in unpredictable ways. It's also about his artist
has to deal with his common absences and precarious
Niffenegger, frustrated in love when she began the
work, wrote the story as a metaphor for her failed
The tale's central relationship came to her in a flash one day
and subsequently became the novel's title. The novel, which has
been classified as both science fiction and romance, examines
issues of love, loss, and free will. In particular, it uses time
travel to explore miscommunication and distance in
relationships. It also investigates deeper existential
As a first-time novelist, Niffenegger had trouble finding a
literary agent. She eventually sent the novel to MacAdam/Cage
unsolicited and, after an auction took place for the rights,
Niffenegger selected them as her publisher. It became a
bestseller after an endorsement from author and family friend
Scott Turow on The Today Show, and as of March 2009 had
sold nearly 2.5 million copies in the United States and the
Many reviewers were impressed with Niffenegger's unique
perspective on time travel. Some praised her characterization of
the couple, applauding their emotional depth; others criticized
her writing style as melodramatic and the plot as emotionally
trite. The novel won the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize and a
British Book Award. A film version is scheduled for release in
Using alternating first-person perspectives, the novel tells
the stories of Henry DeTamble (born 1963), a librarian at the
Newberry Library in Chicago, and his wife, Clare Abshire (born
1971), an artist who makes paper sculptures. Henry has a rare
genetic disorder, which comes to be known as Chrono-Displacement,
that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. When
20-year-old Clare meets 28-year-old Henry at the Newberry
Library in 1991 at the opening of the novel, he has never seen
her before, although she has known him most of her life.
Henry begins time travelling at the age of five, jumping
forward and backward relative to his own timeline. He is unable
to control his travels: when he leaves, where he goes, or how
long his trip will last. His destinations are tied to his
subconscious—he most often travels to places and times related
to his own history. Certain stimuli such as stress can trigger
Henry's time travelling; he often runs to keep calm and remain
in the present. He also searches out pharmaceuticals in the
future that may be able to control his time travelling, and
seeks the advice of a geneticist, Dr. Kendrick. Henry cannot
take anything with him into the future or the past; he always
arrives naked and struggles to find clothing, shelter, and food.
He amasses a number of survival skills including pick pocketing,
lock-picking, and fighting skills—many of these he learns from
older versions of himself.
Once their timelines converge "naturally" at the
library—their first meeting, in his chronology—Henry starts to
travel to Clare's childhood and adolescence in South Haven,
Michigan, beginning in 1977 when she is six years old. On one of
his early visits (from her perspective), Henry gives her a list
of the dates he will appear and she writes them in a diary so
she will remember to provide him with clothes and food when he
During another visit, he inadvertently reveals that they will
be married in the future. Over time, they develop a close
relationship. At one point, Henry helps Clare frighten and
humiliate a boy who abused her. Clare is last visited in her
youth by Henry in 1989, on her eighteenth birthday, during which
they make love for the first time. They are then separated for
two years until their meeting at the library.
Clare and Henry marry, but Clare has trouble bringing a
pregnancy to term because of the genetic anomaly Henry is
presumably passing on to the fetus. After six miscarriages,
Henry wishes to save Clare further pain and has a vasectomy.
However a version of Henry from the past visits Clare one night
and impregnates her; she subsequently gives birth to a daughter,
Alba. Alba is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement, but, unlike
Henry, she has some control over her destinations when she time
travels. Before she is born, Henry travels to the future and
meets his ten-year-old daughter on a school field trip and
learns that he died when she was five years old.
When he is 43, during what is to be his last year of life,
Henry time travels to a Chicago parking garage on a frigid
winter night where he is unable to find shelter. As a result of
the hypothermia and frostbite he experiences, his feet are
amputated when he returns to the present.
Henry and Clare both know that without the ability to escape
when he time travels, Henry will certainly die within his next
few jumps. On New Year's Eve 2006 Henry time travels into the
middle of the Michigan woods in 1984 and is accidentally shot by
Clare's brother, a scene foreshadowed earlier in the novel.
Henry returns to the present and dies in Clare's arms.
Clare is devastated by Henry's passing. She later finds a
letter from Henry which asks her to "stop waiting" for him, but
which describes a moment in her future when she will see him.
The last scene in the book takes place when Clare is 82 and
Henry is 43. She is waiting for Henry, as she has done her whole
life, and when he arrives, he clasps her in his arms.
Composition and publication
Niffenegger is an artist who teaches at the Center for Book
and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, where she
painstakingly prepares editions of handpainted books.
She produced some of her earlier works in editions of ten
copies, which were sold in art galleries. However, she decided
that The Time Traveler's Wife would have to be a novel:
"I got the idea for the title, and when I draw I have this big
drawing table covered with brown paper, and I write ideas down
on the paper. So I wrote down this title and after a while I
started to think about it. I couldn't think of a way to make it
a picture book because still pictures don't represent time very
well, so I decided to write a novel."
She was intrigued by the title because "it immediately
defined two people and their relationship to each other".
Niffenegger said that its source was an epigraph to J. B.
Priestley's 1964 novel Man and Time: "Clock time is our
bank manager, tax collector, police inspector; this inner time
is our wife." Drawing her central theme from this image, she
says, "Henry is not only married to Clare; he's also married to
Other authors whom Nifenegger has cited as influencing the book
include Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Henry James, and
She has said the story is a metaphor for her own failed love
affairs and that "I had kind of got the idea that there's not
going to be some fabulous perfect soulmate out there for me, so
I'll just make him up."
She also drew on her parents' marriage for inspiration—her
father spent the bulk of each week traveling.
Despite the story's analogies to her own life, Niffenegger has
forcefully stated that Clare is not a self-portrait: "She's
radically different. I am much more wilful and
headstrong. ... I don't
think I could go through a lifetime waiting for someone to
appear, no matter how fascinating he was."
Niffenegger began writing the novel in 1997—the last scene,
in which an aged Clare is waiting for Henry, was written first,
because it is the story's focal point.
The narrative was originally structured thematically; responding
to comments from readers of early drafts of the manuscript,
Niffenegger reorganized the narrative so that it largely
followed Clare's timeline.
The work was finished in 2001. With no history of commercial
publication, Niffenegger had trouble finding interested literary
agents—25 rejected the manuscript.
In 2002, she sent it unsolicited to the small, San
Francisco–based publisher MacAdam/Cage, where it reached Anika
Streitfield. Streitfeld, who became Niffeneger's editor,
"thought it was incredible. Right from the very beginning you
feel like you are in capable hands, that this is someone who has
a story to tell and who knows how to tell it."
She gave it to David Poindexter, the founder of the
publishing firm, "who read it overnight and decided to buy the
However, Niffeneger had acquired an agent by this time, and
several publishing houses in New York City were interested in
the novel. The manuscript was put up for auction and MacAdam/Cage
bid US$100,000, by far the largest sum it had ever offered for a
Although another publisher outbid them, Niffeneger selected
MacAdam/Cage because they were so dedicated to her work. Also,
Niffenegger explains that her "own natural inclination is to go
small. My background is in punk music—I'd always pick the indie
company over the giant corporation."
Reviewers have found The Time Traveler's Wife
difficult to classify generically: some categorize it as science
fiction, others as a romance.
Niffenegger herself is reluctant to label the novel, saying she
"never thought of it as science fiction, even though it has a
In Niffenegger's view, the story is primarily about Henry and
Clare's relationship and the struggles they endure.
She has said that she based Clare and Henry's romance on the
"cerebral coupling" of Dorothy Sayers's characters Lord Peter
Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
Time travel stories to which the novel has been compared
include Jack Finney's Time and Again (1970) and the film
Somewhere in Time (1980).
Henry has been compared to Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
Science fiction writer Terence M. Green calls the novel a "timeslip
The Time Traveler's Wife is not as concerned with the
paradoxes of time travel as is traditional science fiction.
Instead, as critic Marc Mohan describes, the novel "uses time
travel as a metaphor to explain how two people can feel as if
they've known each other their entire lives".
Niffeneger identifies the themes of the novel as "mutants,
love, death, amputation, sex, and time".
Reviewers have focused on love, loss, and time. As Charlie
Lee-Potter writes in The Independent, the novel is "an
elegy to love and loss".
The love between Henry and Clare is expressed in a variety of
ways, including through an analysis and history of the couple's
While much of the novel shows Henry and Clare falling in
love, the end is darker and "time travel becomes a means for
representing arbitrariness, transience, [and] plain bad luck",
according to The Boston Globe's
As Andrew Billen argues in The Times, "The book may even
serve as a feminist analysis of marriage as a partnership in
which only the male is conceded the privilege of absence."
Several reviewers noted that time travel represents
relationships in which couples cannot quite communicate with
Natasha Walter of The Guardian describes the story's
attention to "the sense of slippage that you get in any
relationship—that you could be living through a slightly
different love story from the one your partner is experiencing."
She points, for example, to the section of the book which
describes the first time Clare and Henry make love. She is 18
and he is 41, already married to her in his present. After this
interlude, he returns to his own time and his own Clare, who
Henry's been gone for almost twenty-four hours now, and
as usual I'm torn between thinking obsessively about when
and where he might be and being pissed at him for not being
here ... I hear
Henry whistling as he comes up the path through the garden,
into the studio. He stomps the snow off his boots and shrugs
off his coat. He's looking marvellous, really happy. My heart
is racing and I take a wild guess: "May 24, 1989?" "Yes,
oh, yes!" Henry scoops me
up ... and swings me around. Now I'm laughing, we're
The novel raises questions about determinism and free will.
For example, critic Dan Falk asks, "Given that [Henry's] journey
has 'already happened,' should he not simply be compelled
to act precisely as he remembers seeing himself act? (Or perhaps
he is compelled, and merely feels he has a
Although Henry seemingly cannot alter the future, the characters
do not become "cynical" and, according to Lee-Potter, the novel
demonstrates that people can be changed through love.
Walter notes that there is a "quasi-religious sense" to the
inevitability of Henry's and Clare's lives and deaths.
Niffeneger, however, believes that the novel does not depict
destiny but rather "randomness and meaninglessness".
The hardback edition of The Time Traveler's Wife was
published in the United States in September 2003 by MacAdam/Cage
and in the United Kingdom by Random House on January 1, 2004.
MacAdam/Cage initiated an "extensive marketing drive", including
advertising in the The New York Times and The New
Yorker and a promotional book tour by Niffenegger.
As a result, the novel debuted at number nine on the New York
Times bestseller list. After popular crime writer Scott
Turow, whose wife is a friend of Niffenegger's, endorsed it on
The Today Show, the first print run of 15,000 sold out
and 100,000 more copies were printed.
In Britain, the book received a boost from its choice as a Richard & Judy book club recommendation—nearly 45,000 copies
were sold in one week.
It was named the 2003 Amazon.com Book of the Year.
A December 2003 article in The Observer reported that
although "a tiny minority of American reviewers" felt that the
novel was "gimmicky", it was still "a publishing sensation".
At that point, the novel had been sold to publishers in 15
As of March 2009, it had sold almost 1.5 million copies in the
United States and 1 million in the United Kingdom.
The success of The Time Traveler's Wife prompted almost
every major publishing firm to attempt to acquire Niffenegger's
second novel, the forthcoming Her Fearful Symmetry, which
has been called "one of the most eagerly sought-after works in
recent publishing history". It garnered her an advance of US$5
million from Scribner's.
Reviewers praised Niffenegger's characterization of Henry and
Clare, particularly their emotional depth.
Michelle Griffin of The Age noted that although Henry "is
custom-designed for the fantasy lives of bookish ladies", his
flaws, particularly his "violent, argumentative, depressive"
nature, make him a strong, well-rounded character.
Charles DeLint wrote in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science
Fiction that one of Niffenegger's "greatest accomplishments"
in the novel was her ability to convey the emotional growth of
Clare and Henry in character arcs while at the same time
alternating their perspectives.
Stephen Amidon of The Times, however, questioned the
selfishness of the central characters.
Most reviewers were impressed with the premise of the novel,
but critical of its melodramatic style. While Griffin praised
the plot and concept as "clever", she complained that
Niffenegger's writing is usually "pedestrian" and the story at
Heidi Darroch of the National Post agreed, contending
that the story has an excess of overwrought emotional moments
"which never quite add up to a fully developed plot".
Writing in The Chicago Tribune, Carey Harrison praised
the originality of the novel, specifically the intersection of
child-bearing and time travel.
Despite appreciating the novel's premise, Amidon complained that
the implications of Henry's time-traveling were poorly thought
For example, Henry has foreknowledge of the September 11
attacks but does nothing to try and prevent them. Instead, on
September 11, he gets up early "to listen to the world being
normal for a little while longer".
Amidon also criticized the novel's "overall clumsiness", writing
that Niffenegger is "a ham-fisted stylist, long-winded and given
to sudden eruptions of cliche".
Miriam Shaviv agreed to an extent, writing in The Jerusalem
Post, "There are no original or even non-cliched messages
here. True love, Niffenegger seems to be telling us, is
timeless, and can survive even the worst
circumstances. ... And
yet, the book is a page-turner, delicately crafted and
Representative of the bulk of reviews, the Library Journal
described the novel as "skillfully written with a blend of
distinct characters and heartfelt emotions"; it recommended that
public libraries purchase multiple copies of the book.
Awards and nominations
|Locus Award for Best First Novel
|Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction
|Arthur C. Clarke Award
|John W. Campbell Memorial Award
|Exclusive Books Boeke Prize
|British Book Award for Popular Fiction
The film rights for The Time Traveler's Wife were
optioned by Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt's production company
Plan B Entertainment, in association with New Line Cinema,
before the novel was even published.
The adaptation was written by Bruce Joel Rubin and directed by
Robert Schwentke, and stars Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.
Filming began in September 2007 and the movie is scheduled to be
released by Warner Brothers on August 14, 2009.
When asked about the prospect of her novel being turned into a
film, Niffenegger said, "I've got my little movie that runs in
my head. And I'm kind of afraid that will be changed or wiped
out by what somebody else might do with it. And it is sort of
thrilling and creepy, because now the characters have an
existence apart from me."
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