In so many ways this book is about Henry, the time traveler; he’s exciting and calming and loyal and beautiful and all the things a romantic hero should be. But as the title suggests and the book bears out, the story is really about Clare, the woman who must wait. (I almost wrote “weight,” a word that somehow seems appropriate as well.).
My student Mike recommended I read this book, and to be honest, I expected it to fall into the stereotype of “guy” books – you know with fast-paced plots and lots of suspense – but knowing Mike – and most of the men who take creative writing, I should have known better. There is suspense, but it’s not the kind of action that will be resolved easily. There is great pacing, but it’s slow and methodic – like life. But it’s the characters and the relationship between them that make this book really remarkable. I find myself nodding or silently crying in some scenes because I know this moment – or I think I can know it – those moments when the person you are with is so painfully beautiful that you are sure, given the nature of the world, that something must go horribly wrong. Niffenegger writes those moments beautifully.
For those of you who don’t know the gist of this book (once again, I am coming to the party late on this one), Henry is a man who travels through time without any will to do so and without any real control over where he goes. As an adult, he meets Clare, a young girl who will – he knows – eventually become his wife. The novel is the story of their relationship as it weaves through the farce known as time. I won’t say more because if you haven’t read this book, you really should. Every moment is worth it.
Here are the things I love most about the book:
Clare’s sense of herself as an artist – she knows when she must walk away and when she must create.
Alba – a little girl who appears later in the novel with glorious precociousness.
Henry – his angst over his traveling calls to mind all the ways people feel or are trapped in choices they didn’t make.
The friends that surround them – I love that they know what happens and accept it, no mystery, not too much awe, just the reality of life with people they love.
The way that Niffenegger handles time travel – I can only imagine how complex the structure must have been to create and how it must have been tempting to let that aspect of the book take over all else. To keep such a fantastical element under control and use it merely as a tool to convey relationships, that’s the talent of a skilled writer.
But most of all, I love the way this book tugs out the theme of waiting. As the final poem in the book notes, this is the story of Penelope waiting, the story of women (and men) waiting for their husbands (and wives) to return from war, the story of every person who has sat on a couch waiting for their partner to return home to them, the tale of every young adult who longs to know what they will be “when they grow up.” It is the story of life whether we like it or not – we are often waiting. And if we’re lucky, we forget we are waiting for moments where love and hope overwhelm us.