Friday, August 21, 2009

Exfanding Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

People often dream of what it would be like to time-travel, imagining how incredible it would be to hang out with Socrates, walk around the Wild West with Billy the Kid, get psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud, go bowling with Napoleon, and spring Abe Lincoln and Gengis Khan from prison.

Personally, I'm more interested in the future--What will my potential children and grandchildren be like? What's in store for humanity in the long run? Dude, where's my flying car?

Imagine, however, if you could time-travel... but you had no control over where or when you would go, and every time you reach your destination, you show up without any clothes. You know; the kind of naked that gets you arrested on the street.

On the one hand, you could run into a lot of trouble showing up to a party, shall we say, not dressed for the occasion. Traveling back to a day in the deep of winter would be terribly unpleasant. And what if you kept going back in time to witness the same tragedy over and over?

On the other hand, you'd gain a wholly unique insight about your future and other people's pasts. You might get another chance to spend just a few more minutes with the loved one you lost long ago. And maybe, just maybe, you'd have a shot at fixing the greatest mistakes of your life before they happen.

The tradeoffs are huge, but would you do it?

Furthermore, if you were just an average person, could you fall in love with someone who does time-travel like this? Would you stay with them if they frequently disappeared in the middle of dinner and didn't return for a few weeks? Would you be able to stomach the anxiety of knowing that their life is in real danger every time they travel, and there's nothing you can do to help them?

But what if a refreshingly more youthful version of your loved one dropped by as you grew older, or if a refreshingly more mature version of your loved one paid a visit to you in your youth? What if your time-traveling mate knew the future and could allay your worries about how your life is going to turn out?

The tradeoffs are huge, but would you do it?

For the characters of The Time Traveler's Wife, there isn't much choice about it. Henry DeTamble was born a time-traveler, and Clare Abshire began falling in love with him long before he had ever met her. Think about that one for a second.

The Time Traveler's Wife book coverAs a book, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife is a complex work that explores virtually every aspect of how time travel can affect a person's life, for better or for worse--and often it's not so clear where the lines between better and worse are.

Told through a series of journal entries by Henry and Clare, respectively, The Time Traveler's Wife gives readers a profound understanding of the main characters, and it's all too easy to imprint yourself on the characters if you share any of the same qualities with them or if you've ever been in a complicated, awkward, or overwhelmingly strong romantic relationship.

The Time Traveler's Wife is decidedly for more mature readers; there's sex, gore, profanity, and some soul-crushingly tragic situations that, if you are truly invested in the characters, will emotionally tear you to shreds. Speaking from experience, if you're a very sensitive or emotional person, or if you are so in tune with the characters that it feels as though the events of the book are actually happening to you, make sure you've got a stockpile of tissues and a very big stuffed animal or a loved one to hold on to as things fall apart. Trust me.

Despite all this, The Time Traveler's Wife is my second-favorite book, and it only trails behind Jurassic Park because there's a major plot twist in The Time Traveler's Wife that wrecked the direction of the book for me, resulting in an ending that was suitable for the situation but unsatisfying on a number of levels for me. Your results may vary.

So how is it such an apparently tragic book could have such a great appeal to someone who refuses to watch modern TV shows because they're all depressing and too much like real life? Easy.

I found the writing to be brilliant and rife with humor, thought-provoking dialogue, clever (and sometimes really warped) situations, and creatively vivid descriptions. The story zigzags across large portions of Clare and Henry's lives, bringing out the joy, sorrow, laughter, anger, sensuality, surprise, confusion, frustration, and anticipation they experience as their lives and relationships change--the full range of human emotion is covered, and the feelings are authentic.

Like many books, The Time Traveler's Wife has been adapted into a movie, starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. Hopefully you didn't read that last sentece as, "Many books get adapted into a movie starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams." Unlike most books, however, I would recommend watching the movie version after reading the book, not before.

It's all too common for a movie to differ too much from its source material, adding or omitting or altering things that upset fans of the book, but this is not so much the case with The Time Traveler's Wife. The movie version effectively conveys the spirit of the book through an adapted version of the story that hits most of the major plot points, and the film captures the feeling of unexpectedly traveling through time and randomly appearing all over the place even more successfully than the book, thanks to the instant gratification of seeing everything happen all at once rather than reading through a paragraph or two before being able to form that same picture in one's mind.

Some changes had to be made to keep the movie at a reasonable length, and many things (such as the deep character development and the format of the book as a series of journal entries) probably would not have translated well to the big screen, so I for one have no problem with the way the movie was handled. For the most part. But I'll discuss that in a moment.

I suggest watching the movie after reading the book for a few reasons: First, the movie is really more of a visual outline of the book than anything else, so it works as an opportunity to experience the book through a different medium, but it lacks the character development and emotional depth of the book to make it a very memorable stand-alone movie; most of my emotional reactions to the movie were a result of remembering how I felt at that point in the book, so I expect the film to be a fairly shallow experience for people who haven't read the book.

Now here's where my biggest qualm comes into play: Because the movie is more of an outline that hits the major plot points but doesn't delve too deep into the characters, I felt it was more important for the characters to look and sound the part than for them to act the part. It's impossible to find actors that look exactly how everyone pictures the characters, but Clare is introduced in the book as "a Botticelli by way of John Graham: huge gray eyes, long nose, tiny delicate mouth like a geisha. She has long red hair that covers her shoulders and falls to the middle of her back. Clare is so pale she looks like a waxwork in the candlelight," and moviegoers get generic brunette Rachel McAdams.

Rachel McAdams in The Time Traveler's WifeGranted, I think she and the others did a fine job bringing the character part of the characters to life, but, simply in terms of appearance, McAdams did not belong at all--and it doesn't look like they even tried to dye her hair red or make her skin pale. Maybe I'm making too big a deal of this, but imagine what it would look like if Ray Romano was cast as Thor without any additional makeup or a wig, and that's essentially the effect I'm talking about here.

Here's the second and more important reason I'd watch the movie after reading the book: The movie manages to soften the emotional blows of the book by gradually preparing viewers for the tragedies that are to come, leaving out some of the most traumatizing (but nonessential) events, and modifying some of the most hopelessly depressing parts so they're actually bearable. In a way, I enjoyed the book more after watching the movie; considering just how much I identified with the characters, it was a personal relief that in some alternate reality somewhere, Henry and Clare had been spared some of the horrible things they had gone through elsewhere.

But I didn't read the book or watch the movie just to get depressed. Just as in real life, you take the bad with the good, and the good found in The Time Traveler's Wife is phenomenal. Not everyone will like the book (or the movie, for that matter), but at the point in my life when I first read it, it struck a chord with me in a way that no work ever has. The characters were impossibly real, the story was compelling and surprising, the writing achieved a perfect harmony of detailed descriptions and excellent pacing, and I felt like I was there.

The Time Traveler's Wife is relentlessly engaging, and even though it doesn't have genetically engineered dinosaurs, it's still an amazing read.


Scott said...

I read the book on a whim and it turned out to be one of my favorite books. Not many books have moved me the way that book did.

It's interesting if you read it twice; once thinking of Henry as the main character, then again thinking of Clare as the main character.

I can't say much beyond that. I want to read the book again, but it's so powerful for me that I'm almost afraid to. A lot of that is due to the ending.

That's also the reason I don't want to see the movie. Not necessarily because I'm afraid it will do the book justice, but because I'm afraid that it /will/ do the book justice and it'll be too much for me to watch.

Flashman85 said...


The ending of the movie is similar in concept, but the underlying message is almost the total opposite of the message at the end of the book. It's a different feeling altogether.


Yeah, I was considering rereading the book as well, but ran into the same concern. There's no doubt I'll go back to it eventually, though.

b madhu said...

nice article...i just started reading this book...i am trying to translate it to my mother tongue...i had some doubts about some terms like Botticelli....etc thats why i came here

Flashman85 said...

Hi, b madhu! Good luck with the translation--hopefully it's worth the effort!