Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s Wife is the debut novel of Audrey Niffenegger published in 2004 which went on to become a phenomenal bestseller, exceeding all expectations of the publisher and the writer. Not only has the book succeeded in terms of sales (with many millions of copies sold, although I’m not sure exactly how many) but also in terms of critical acclaim and, possibly most importantly of all, readers’ appreciation. On the US and UK Amazon websites over 2000 readers took the time to write their opinion of the book. About 1800 of these are 4 or 5 star reviews and most of them abound with effusive, unreserved enthusiasm. Not me.

In a nutshell (if anyone doesn’t know the story already) this is the love story of Henry, a man with a genetic deficiency which causes him to snap out of the time he is in and be projected unwillingly into another point of his life either in the future or the past and Clare, the woman he loves. And that basically is it.

So why did I hate it? (Is hate too strong a word? ‘Thorougly disliked’ might suffice but then that wouldn’t be in the spirit of our critical week.)

I had my suspicions about Henry from the start; the traveling back in time by a couple of months when he was a teenager to have sex with himself; his sexual thoughts about a little girl who would later be his wife; but it was about quarter of the way into the book when I realized just how obnoxious he really was. In this scene he beats a guy, who is very drunk and unable to fight back, into a pulp just because he ‘had the effrontery to call me a faggot’. And this is supposedly the year 2000. Later in the novel, he unscrupulously uses his knowledge that his doctor’s wife is expecting a Down’s Syndrome child in order to coerce his doctor into helping him.

Clare is almost as unbearable. On her first meeting with her father-in-law he asks why she wants to marry Henry and she replies ‘Because he’s really, really good in bed.’ (She’s 21.) Of course everyone in the scene ‘howls with laughter’ at this piece of witty repartee. Except me. Later, knowing that any child they might have would be likely to inherit Henry’s inconvenient tendancy to time-travel, she dismisses the possibility of adoption as ‘just pretending’ to be parents.

Henry and Clare try their best to be ‘hip’: they are into punk music (as well as a wide range of classical, opera etc), have lots (and lots!) of energetic sex and pepper their speech with bad language but in reality they are old-fashioned, condescending bourgeois with superiority complexes. They like to drop smatterings of French and German in their conversations with each other, quote their favourite poet, Rilke, eat in trendy restaurants, name-drop, have pat opinions on art and discuss philosophical concepts in very superficial terms. Clare comes from an incredibly wealthy family and, although Henry is from more modest beginnings, his father is the principal violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and his mother was a brilliant opera singer whose career was cut short by a dramatic and horrific car accident. Both Henry’s and Clare’s voices are so alike that I often found it hard to keep track of whose narrative I was in.

The condescension they show to a young couple of punks they meet at a party is typical of their attitude to those around them but of course all their friends (the usual politically correct medley including the gay friend dying of AIDS) are in thrall to Henry and Clare, torn between admiration and adoration of them and desire and profound envy of their sexual chemistry and intense love.

Despite Henry’s assertion that he cannot go back to the past and change events, he does manage to pick up the winning numbers to the lottery on one trip. He also manages to pass on stock market tips to his friends but seems unable to use his talents for any non-materialistic purpose.

To be fair, (I am trying) there are some scenes which capture well the sadness of knowing what lies ahead but it’s a high price to pay for the effort. As I skimmed over this novel for the second time in order to write this review (what I’m prepared to do for Vulpes is above and beyond the call of duty!) I realized that the main thing I learned from this novel is just how boring, self-centered and thoroughly irritating people who are madly in love are to all those around them. What a good thing that in real life most people tend to regain a modicum of proportion, not to mention decorum, over time.

Vintage; New Ed edition (6 Jan 2005), 529 pages ISBN-10: 0099464462

31 comments on “The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

  1. Simon
    April 12, 2008

    Wow – I bought this a few years ago, after a few people declared it the best book every written and so forth, but have yet to read it. Perhaps I won’t now…. if only because of “the traveling back in time by a couple of months when he was a teenager to have sex with himself” – what?!!

  2. Mhairi
    April 12, 2008

    Crikey. Crimoney even. I’ve never read it, and it’s not actually something I’d have been inclined to pick up anyway … but it sounds pretty tacky. Yack. Ditto the having sex with himself bit … What Simon said.

    I’ll be interested to read what someone who loved this book has to say about it, apart from the fact that we (the three of us at least) are so seriously unhip that – as Zaphod Beeblebrox once famously said – it’s amazing our bums don’t drop off.

  3. Anne Brooke
    April 12, 2008

    But I loved it!!! It’s a fabulous book – a cracking portrait of a very strong relationship which is managed with wit and humanity. I loved the way Clare deals with Henry and works out how to live with someone so very different – and indeed as all men are aliens (of course!), it’s a humorous way of taking that difference to extremes.

    It’s exciting, passionate and has one of the best novel endings I’ve ever read. Most of all though, it’s completely off-the-wall and in a class of its own, and it’s marvellous to see such books being allowed to get to market. More power to Niffenegger’s elbow, say I!



  4. marygm
    April 12, 2008

    Maybe you should try it, Simon, I’m in the tiny minority of people who didn’t like it so you may well enjoy it. (Although, in addition to the sex, Henry’s dad actually catches Henry and himself in the act. Forewarned is forearmed!)

    Mhairi, I’m sure lots of people will testify as to how wonderful a book it is so it may well be my taste that’s at fault.

    Anne, I agree that the end is not bad – that’s the bit I was thinking of when I talked about the sadness of knowing the future – but the problem was that by the time I got there Henry and Clare were getting on my nerves so much that they could have fallen off the edge of the world for all I cared.

  5. rosyb
    April 12, 2008

    I can’t say I can comment terribly knowledgeably about this as I haven’t read it through but the reason I haven’t is that I got to the introduction of the characters and I seem to remember it was all about her chestnut hair (as someone said recently a hair-colour that doesn’t seem to exist outside novel-land) and his handsome whateverness and I just thought it wasn’t really one for me.

    Not because of them being a handsome couple you understand. But the way it was described didn’t seem to have that particularity I want.

    Lisa was talking about this on the Picador blog recently: (you have to scroll down a bit – it’s a call for Lop-sided Breasts and More Verrucas)

    About the way heroines must always have button noses and perfect hair. She, very entertainingly, demands some warty verruccaed heroines with scabies please – but I think the point is for me that things have to have a sense of individuality about them. Someone can be ravishingly beautiful but it is the individual things about them – not the generalities – you fall in love with. The things that make them them – rather than make them like some sort of blueprint for a generalised fantasy.

    I realise I’m going on and on about something that is maybe a small point to some, but it signalled something to me.

    I need to know more about Henry having sex with himself though – what? when? and WHY?

  6. Anne Brooke
    April 12, 2008

    Chestnut hair? What exactly is fictional about that?! I have chestnut hair and most of my books have someone with red (could be chestnut – I don’t specify!) hair in them. I’d like to stand up right now for all chestnut-haired people and tell the world what they have denied for so long: we exist!!!



  7. Anne Brooke
    April 12, 2008

    PS Go to my website link and click on “About me” if you don’t believe it!!



  8. marygm
    April 12, 2008

    I had no particular objection to the chestnut hair. Or even chestnut hair in a broader sense. What I was less keen on was her being a Botticelli.

    As for the sex, I think Henry was around 15 and Himself was 15 and a half. (or was it the other way round?) It would have pushed the yuckiness over the bounds if the age gap had been any more.

  9. kirstyjane
    April 12, 2008

    This sounds really terrible! Even the plot outline made me feel queasy.

  10. rosyb
    April 12, 2008

    “Chestnut hair? What exactly is fictional about that?! I have chestnut hair and most of my books have someone with red (could be chestnut – I don’t specify!) hair in them.”

    LOL – ok ok! Everyone’s feisty today. Must be the weekend. But you have to admit it’s one of those terms that tend to crop up in a romanticised way and is a bit of a romantic cliche? No? Go on, don’t hold back, just trample me into the floor.

    But the way they are introduced is not specific – to me, anyway. Maybe that was the point. Maybe it was meaning to be sweepingly romantic in that way, but I suppose it depends on whether you buy that or not.

    I do think the idea of exploring relationships of different age-gaps and power relations is interesting, mind you. But is it actually doing that?

  11. Sam
    April 12, 2008

    I do think the idea of exploring relationships of different age-gaps and power relations is interesting, mind you. But is it actually doing that?

    Er, no. It’s Back To The Future with autofellatio.

    Not that I’ve read the thing, a course.

  12. lizzysiddal
    April 12, 2008

    I hated it so much that I decided writing a blog entry was a waste of energy. In the end I kept it pithy and sassy and short, issuing a challenge to those who loved it.

    Interesting lack of response …..

  13. Caro
    April 12, 2008

    I didn’t hate it, exactly – the weepy ending got me and overall I thought the idea was clever – but I couldn’t understand all the hype about its wonderfulness. Spoiler alert – I was so disappointed by the bit where Henry appears trapped in the ‘cage’ in the library staircase. This was chillingly foreshadowed near the beginning, but when the scene arrived, all that happened was his colleagues made some lame jokes about Superman and he easily got free. What a let-down!

  14. Lisa
    April 12, 2008

    Oh, I liked it.

    *Hangs head*

    But I do agree with Caro about this:
    “I was so disappointed by the bit where Henry appears trapped in the ‘cage’ in the library.” Likewise, I hear Rosy’s point about the romantic cliches. So yes, reading this hatchet I can see how people might have a problem with it.

    The bit where Henry travels back to a few months to have a wee fiddle with his former self is a moment of utter mortification in the book, as his dad catches him at it. I liked that hideously embarrassing element of the scene, but it didn’t exactly ring true. Time travel I can accept, but being attracted to oneself as a teenager? Not so much.

    I was interested in the rather creepy idea of this older guy visiting Clare as a girl. Being drawn to her childhood home again and again. There’s something slightly disturbing in that. Perhaps that could have been made more of in the narrative, rather than just leaving it hanging like a bad smell, to be either ignored by those readers who didn’t want to confront that, or objected to by those who did notice and dislike it.

    All in all though, I thought it was cleverly done, with a beautiful ending. Anne, it’s me and you again, kid!

  15. Anne Brooke
    April 12, 2008

    Ah, Lisa, we’re just two of a kind! And don’t worry, Rosy, we chestnuts are loving and kind and are just glad to be noticed by you, you know, whether fictional or not!




  16. kirstyjane
    April 12, 2008

    I suppose I also have chestnut hair, but I agree with Rosy in that the word chestnut is *only* used in English in romantic cliches. Or Little Women.

    We chestnut girls have our spiritual home in France though. Châtain is very commonly used to describe hair colour – derived from the word châtaigne, chestnut. A shame English doesn’t accord us such respect.

  17. Anne Brooke
    April 12, 2008

    I never knew that, Kirsty Jane! Votes for meeting each other at the airport with our tickets to France! Just as long as it’s not Terminal 5 …



  18. Jackie
    April 12, 2008

    My local book group recently read this book & I quite liked it. All the jumping around in time was a bit confusing, but I really liked the characters & the story. It was a relationship that was extremely unconventional, but showed a love that rose above age & circumstances, each accepting the other’s oddness & making them all the more fond. There was plenty of symbolism & art to add layers to the story, which I appreciated.
    As for the “sex with himself” bit, that only lasts a paragraph or two, much more has been written here about it than appears in the book. It’s just a blip, not a major plot point. There’s so much more to the book than that.

  19. kirstyjane
    April 12, 2008

    Ah well, you see! You can just call me Kirsty, by the way. I changed my display name as there’s another Kirsty who comments.

    I’d be back in France in a heartbeat. Of course, now I realise why I felt so comfortable there…

  20. marygm
    April 13, 2008

    The thing about this book is that readers tend to feel strongly about it and that has to be a Good Thing. Much better than a book people are indifferent to. So well done to Audrey Niffenegger for that.

  21. Nik
    April 13, 2008

    I absolutely loved it.


  22. poppy
    April 13, 2008

    Oh, I loved it too!!

    “I do think the idea of exploring relationships of different age-gaps and power relations is interesting, mind you. But is it actually doing that?”

    – I thought it did that really rather well, actually.

  23. Catherine Czerkawska
    April 14, 2008

    This was one of those books I thought everyone else loved, but couldn’t finish. Just got so far through it and then lost the will to go on. So it’s reassuring to find I’m not alone. And I’m generally put off by over specific descriptions of beautiful heroines so that may have something to do with it – especially when they look at themselves in a mirror, and describe themselves to themselves for our benefit… yeuch. Well they never think, Christ, I’ve got a spot developing or where did those bloody wrinkles come from, do they, oh no. They think ‘my mouth is too big to be really beautiful’, and you just know the writer has Julia Roberts in mind for the movie. A few more warty heroines would be excellent, I agree.
    When I was analysing why I couldn’t finish this book, I just felt as if it was too clever for its own good, but I didn’t hate it as much as some so I may give it another go!

  24. Caroline
    April 16, 2008

    Oh me too! Loathed it actually and finding all these other non-fans exist is quite wonderful…

  25. tasha
    July 11, 2008

    hey, has anyone been on ??? you enter your top 5 books and compare them with others’, compiling a definitive global list of top books.
    amongst a very eclectic list of the top books of all time, Audrey niffenegger ranks highly – good to see something other than Harry Potter!
    i’m working for the site this summer and i just got niffenegger’s top five books which will be on the site soon so check up in a day or two!

  26. Simon T
    October 8, 2008

    I commented a while ago… now I’ve read it… and I loved it! See my blog today for more thoughts….

  27. Lisa
    October 9, 2008

    Thanks for that, Simon. Interesting what you said about the sex scenes. I can’t imagine the film cutting that element, as it’s only through sex that Henry remains ‘grounded’ (hmm) and nothing sells like sex, eh. That wasn’t my favourite element of the book – seemed a bit clumsily-written to me.

  28. Jill Aurellia
    April 26, 2010

    I hated it and that’s not too strong a term. And I hated the ending most of all! It’s been awhile so to be specific, I hated Library Boy’s end. How manipulative of the author. An ending for shock value alone, is a cheap shot. Have no intention to read her next offering.

  29. EJ
    September 6, 2015

    To say that I hated this book would be a vast understatement. Your review is the first that I have read that touches on the same issues I had with the book. Thank you for putting into words exactly what I was thinking. Why this literary ‘turd’ continues to be read and exalted by the masses I will never understand.

  30. Pingback: Tigers and Time Travelling – Stuck in a Book

  31. Heather
    August 5, 2021

    I’ve just finished ‘her fearful symmetry’ by the same author and found it interesting enough to read ‘time travelers wife’. I’m listening to the audiobook while I wait for the hard copy. I’m about 3 hrs into the 17hr audio. I like it! The part about him having sex w himself isn’t really clear..there some sort or sexual activity but I didn’t think it meant penetration, it’s really only a few sentences, so it’s kinda left to whatever we want to believe. With that said, I love the way time travel is explained in this book and how it seems to be based so much around this loving couple.
    If you like to read I’d definitely say (even though I’m only 2 hrs in) to read the book

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This entry was posted on April 12, 2008 by in Entries by Mary, Fiction: general, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .



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