“The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger, a critical review

I read The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago as part of a list of the best science fiction books of all time. I remember I was sick when I was reading it–one of those feverish illnesses that keeps you up for hours at a time at night. I’d migrated downstairs to the couch so as not to disturb anyone else’s slumber, then turned the lights on dim and read the entire book overnight in between bouts of more severe illness.

I was perplexed. It was well-written stylistically. I was absolutely engrossed almost the entire time I read the book. However, it was also highly problematic on several levels. I typed a lengthy reflection on it, then sat it in my drafts until now. With the new adaptation coming out, I figured it was worth publishing my review of the book, offering my critical view of the popular novel. What follows from here is largely my edited comments from sitting down and writing a review the day after reading the novel. Content warnings for grooming of a minor, assault, and sexual assault.

Stylistically, The Time Traveler’s Wife is captivating. That alone makes me understand how it ends up on “best of” sci-fi lists. That said, there were a few things that really got to me in this one. This will be long and spoiler-y.

First, none of the characters were very likable. I don’t think protagonists need to be perfect, by any means, but the two primary characters here just aren’t endearing. Henry shows up naked in different times periods, having randomly been pulled from his own ‘present’ without anything but his birthday suit to help him. When he shows up in different time periods, he picks locks, pockets, and steals to get what he needs. Sure, sometimes people will give him stuff for free, but mostly he’s decided he has to be a ‘tough guy.’

One example of this is one scene when, after Henry endures some insults in one outfit, he decides it’s time to beat someone to within an inch of their life–cause that’s justified, right? But no, no apologies. It’s basically just accepted. There’s absolutely no reflection on whether this was justified or acceptable. Henry assaults someone because they insulted him and we’re apparently supposed to just move on; after all, who hasn’t wanted to beat someone up because they made fun of their outfit? Wait, that might be true, but how many of us have actually done so and expected to do so consequence-free or even with subtle approval of the powers that be?

Both Henry and Clare assault and publicly humiliate a minor because he burned Clare. Yes, that guy was a turd–and a violent one. He’s shown to be a horrible human being. But there’s not even a question of going to the authorities or seeking justice; let’s just beat the hell outta the guy, tie him up naked, and have all the girls in school come laugh at him… after they kick his man parts. No, seriously! That’s what they do! And once again, the authorial voices seems to give tacit approval!

Clare sticks with Henry through thick and thin, but when she discovers he’s dead she almost immediately starts having sex with her best friend’s partner in her own kitchen while her best friend is out with her daughter (I think that’s how it went down). We’re supposed to just like Clare because she’s good looking and wealthy I think. I couldn’t actually find any other reason to like her. Truly, those are the only reasons given anywhere so far as I can tell. Her actions don’t seem to give us any reason to appreciate her as a human. Henry seems to be intentionally unlikeable. While it’s never really acknowledged, he acts frequently like a psychopath, whether it’s his violent retaliation to insults or his assault–including sexual brutalization–of a minor.

Second, there are some major vibes of grooming happening here. Clare first meets Henry when he’s naked and she’s 6. Yes, his time traveling is random. He has no control over it. However, when he discovers she’s his future wife he totally just hangs out with a minor as he’s naked as if this is the typical thing to do with a minor who will, apparently, one day be your spous. This continues to happen throughout Clare’s life–a grown man shows up naked, and eventually they come to an agreement that she’ll have clothes on hand to take care of him when it happens near enough to her. That’s somehow endearing? I’m not sure. Anyway, they agree to put off sex until she turns 18. Once more, there’s no authorial commentary here. It’s like we’re supposed to just acknowledge a grown man talking to a minor saying things like “You’ll be my wife in the future, but for now let’s just put off sex until you’re legally an adult.” What!?

The iteration of Henry that shows up is 41 years old at the time they finally have sex–old enough to be her father, easily. In this scene, he mentions in passing that before this point there were numerous times he had to fight against arousal to avoid having sex with Clare. Yeah, while she was a minor. It doesn’t say when that started, but the clear reading of the text is that it has happened a lot, which would imply it’s happened possibly for years. Creepy. Yes, he’s her husband–in the future. In Clare’s here-and-now she’s a minor child who is in a egregiously gross relationship with an adult man who ultimately reveals he is her future husband, and that is supposed to make everything okay, apparently? The more I think about this, the more I’m bothered by it all. It’s like her whole life is determined by this creepy old guy who time travels to ultimately have sex with her. Not okay.

Reflecting on this just a little bit also makes one wonder even more about the power dynamics. How is a six year old supposed to react to a grown man in this situation? Did Clare really have any agency when it came to her future love life? Is Henry her husband only because he came to the past and effectively groomed her into being his future spouse, ultimately being her first sexual partner when she was 18 and he was 41? It baffles me that this is seen as a beautiful love story.

Third, I get that time travel will never make much sense, but why is Henry seemingly limited to only his life, his wife’s life, or his daughter’s life when it comes to the temporal dissonance or whatever it’s supposed to be? Why doesn’t he get sent back to the stone age? How has he not been hit by a car or buried under a building? He just pops into existence, seemingly wherever. Why not in front of a semi? And how does he keep his job as a librarian when he keeps showing up naked in the stacks? One offhand remark is made about this, but it’s dismissed as kind of a ‘that’s Henry, haha!’ Sorry, but if you show up naked at almost any job, pretty sure you’d get fired. Maybe this was explained and I missed it, but it seemed pretty implausible to me.

Ultimately, The Time Traveler’s Wife is an incredibly creepy story to me. There’s not much more I want to say about it. It’s gross. This thing has nearly 5/5 stars on Amazon with thousands of reviews. I don’t get it, and I’m not sure I want to.

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