REVIEW SUMMARY: An extremely compelling love story that happens to involve a librarian and his artist wife. I can see why it was a bestseller and why it was critically acclaimed. The sci-fi is overall lighter than most sci-fi books, but the implications of uncontrolled time travel are relevant and dealt with well. Niffenegger demonstrates that you can have a great story involving real, deep characters that also has a pretty massive sci-fi element to it at the same time.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Henry is a dashing, punk-rock loving librarian who also happens to be one of the chrono-displaced. Clair is a debutante artist that falls in love with him throughout their 30+ year relationship. Their life together extends from Clair’s childhood – as Henry travels back and meets here – through Henry’s whole life. The love story is powerful yet subtle as the characters deal with adversity and death along with the joys of life. Henry can’t control his journeys through time – he’s pushed out by stress, and travels to destinations without knowing where he is (and the fact that he always arrives stark naked often have disastrous consequences.)
PROS: Great story, fantastic characters, and a strong sci-fi element that matters. It also contains a message about the importance of living in and enjoying the present.
CONS: The adversity might be a bit contrived, and the sci-fi explanations are a bit on the soft side. Some time travel paradoxes don’t seem to be adequately explained, for example. None of the characters really recover from the loss of love and it wears thin a bit.
BOTTOM LINE: While I can certainly see some members of the ‘he-man woman-haters club’ dismiss this book as a pure romance novel, it really deserves a read if you can appreciate the complete scope of the work. And don’t be confused, there is real sci-fi here in the personal paradox issues of time travel and an explanation for what turns out to be a growing number of chrono-displaced people. The love story is very strong and palpable – you can feel what Henry feels for his wife, his mother, and ultimately his child despite his travels through time to different parts of their lives. I recommend reading this one.
EXTENDED REVIEW: I really enjoyed this book. Without going into all aspects of it, there are a few things that really deserve comment. The characters in this book are real and their motivations make sense – even with Henry’s time travel. His character is one you can empathize with – we’ve all been a ‘fish out of water’ on occasion and don’t always know how to react or behave when confronted with a strange situation. Henry meets his much-younger self, his daughter at age 11, and his mother well before his death and each time we see him act much like a real person would act. He’s a bit fatalistic, but then I figure even the most optimistic of us might come to that in the face of such inscrutable time travel.
The time travel here is Henry’s curse – he can’t change anything in the past or future, despite desire to do so on many occasions, and can’t control it (reminiscent of the TV show Quantum Leap.) This is what makes the story sci-fi and Niffenegger handles it well. I was worried a little bit in the beginning that it might be a mere contrivance or minor plot device but it isn’t.
W. R. Greer wrote in a review that the one issue with the story is that none of the characters recover from loss. Henry’s Dad never recovers from his wife’s death, Clair’s Dad suffers a similar fate, etc. I agree largely and this drags the book down a bit. But in one case Greer isn’t quite accurate – Henry’s Dad does recover ultimately and grow beyond it (but this doesn’t happen until the end of the book.)
Finally, the book isn’t just a sappy romantic love story. It is certainly quite sentimental and has several tear-jerker moments. But the plot moves along, the characters grow, and the time travel makes a difference; often at the saddest moments the story turns light thanks to an inadvertent travel forward or backwards through time.
Henry’s trials remind us all that the present matters – we can too often get caught up in the past or the future and ignore what is here today (our children, our spouses, our parents, etc.) Anybody who has lost a loved one can appreciate the desire for more time with them. Henry sometimes gets this extra time and thus learns to take advantage of every moment his malady give him. I defy you to read this book and not feel the immediate need to reconnect with the important people of your life.