Thursday, January 05, 2017

Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

I'm still wrapping my head around the Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. But I can easily say this: I enjoyed the book. How else can I justify listening to 17 hours, 38 minutes and 14 seconds of audio!

SPOILERS BELOW. Proceed With Caution

Seriously, I really am having trouble explaining why I kept returning to this book over and over, until I listened to every last word. A big part of my appreciation for the book has to be how clever the author's approach was. Niffenegger has give us a cliche love story, yet with a single twist, she has managed to create something truly special.

I was skeptical for almost the entire book; surely Henry isn't *really* time traveling, there must be an alternative explanation. But no, this is the one aspect of reality Niffenegger asks us to suspend, and by doing so, the results are absolutely fascinating. That mundane love story becomes one of mystery and intrigue. And more than that, it shines a light on questions about the nature of time and disability that are ever present, yet usually obscured.

For Henry, life's moments are fundamentally bursty. One minute he's in the present, and the next he's flashed back dozens of years, having a new experience. I can't help but feel sorry for how temporary these moments are. We, on the other hand, are more fortunate: we live time in a steady stream, with our experiences happening in a neat and orderly fashion. Except, the older I get, the more I realize that it's us that's experiencing the illusion, not Henry. We feel that we can lock time in place: the perfect marriage, the perfect children, the perfect job and relax. But that's not how time works; ultimately our experiences will be bursty as well. We're no more able to make our experiences permanent than Henry is. Man that sounds depressing. It's not meant to be. It's just that I appreciate what Niffenegger has done: she's given us a character who seems so foreign, yet, he's each of us in many ways.

In many respects the book reminds me of the TV series Misfits, a raunchy British Comedy/Drama/Fantasy that pulls a similar trick to the book: each of the young characters in the show are mysteriously given a super power. Like Niffenegger, beyond this one bit of sci-fi, the writers have left the rest of the world unchanged. And like the book, we get to sit back and watch as characters navigate the normal world with their new abnormal ability. It's been years since I've watched Misfits (here, watch the first episode), but I remember being struck by how the same super power could be both an advantage and a disadvantage. And so it is with Henry's time traveling ability.

On the surface, being able to jump through time is an asset. What, with being able to pick winning lottery numbers or see glimpses into happier times to come. However, we quickly learn that time travel isn't all it's cracked up to be: it's dangerous, unpredictable and makes everyday activities like holding a job or being a spouse quite difficult. So which is it? Does Henry have a disability or a super power? I think the book, like Misfits, handles this topic well by answering with a resounding 'yes.'

We're quick to generalize circumstances: she's athletic, so she must be happy; he's only got one arm, so he must be unhappy. Books like the Time Traveler's Wife remind us that life is a lot more complicated, and that ultimately we have to play the cards we're dealt versus arguing about whether we were dealt good cards in the first place.

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