annotation by Tina Rubin
After reading so many glowing reviews of this book, I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon, but I learned more about what not to do than what to do reading Niffenegger’s breakout novel. But then I think: Can five million readers be wrong? Who do I think I am?
I’ll answer that by saying I’m a science fiction aficionado and, having tried my hand at writing it, I know the rules. The first is to clearly state the rules, so readers can get oriented. I believe that Niffenegger understood her rules, but they seemed so confusing to me, and unevenly applied, that it became a chore for me to continue. Why, for example, was Henry able to give Clare-the-child a list of dates when he would visit her in the future, but a future Henry could not give Clare-his-wife a list of dates when he’d be gone? Why apply the rules sometimes, but not others?
This issue also came up for me with their young time-traveling daughter, Alba. We assume that, like Henry, she arrives in another time naked. That condition is the bane of Henry’s existence—he has to find clothing, food, money, shelter, and avoid getting picked up by the authorities—but in Alba’s case, Niffenegger carefully avoids these scenarios. But how does a seven-year-old girl cope when she arrives naked and alone in a strange place and time? We get one gratuitous mention, during a rendezvous in time with her father, that she had grabbed a nightgown from an old lady’s clothesline. The author also never explains why, after Henry’s death, a Henry from the past would often visit with his daughter, but not with his wife (until she was 82). So the lesson for me is that if I write science fiction, make the rules clear and simple and apply them evenly.
The love between Clare and Henry is beautifully depicted throughout the book, but I’m left at the end with the question I had at the very beginning: why wasn’t six-year-old Clare afraid of this “old naked guy” who appeared in her meadow? The fact that she took to him right away wasn’t believable; I wanted to see their interaction and how he won her over. In remembering the episode later, Clare says Henry “spectacularly vanished.” If that’s what drew her to him at six, I’d like to have been in the scenes where she felt that and felt the emotion of it then and there.
Certain other elements seemed random to me, dropped in to make the story work. In the last third of the novel, for example, Clare suddenly is agonizing over the fact that she slept with Gomez (currently her best friend’s husband) when she was 18, after losing her virginity to a Henry of the future. The timing of this revelation seems too convenient, because just pages later, Henry learns from Gomez’s wife that Gomez is in love with Clare. That provides an interesting, if exceedingly brief, scene after Henry’s death. The subplot would have been stronger, I think, if it had been woven throughout the story.
Another element that didn’t sit right for me was the final incident with Henry’s frostbite, which seemed way too easy. Having no feet makes Henry conveniently unable to be seen in the bushes during hunting season and unable escape a hunter’s shot. (To Niffenegger’s credit, she makes the point throughout the book that Henry is a serious runner, but the ending is just too convenient.)
The structure of the book, with dates and identification of whose chapter it was, helped anchor me in time and character, but I often could not distinguish who was talking and had to look back at the chapter heading to see. They all sounded alike. Let’s make sure our characters have distinct patterns of speech, so distinct it could only be that person talking. And, pet peeve: characters who say “um” (as in “Um, Clare?” “Um, Henry?”) as if that makes it sound real.
I did like the fact that the author makes a solid scientific basis for Henry’s time traveling. That was quite clever. At some point, I may investigate Niffenegger’s next book, Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel, to see if she’s grown as a writer and built on her strengths, which include a terrific sense of time and its manipulations and an exquisite sense of place. The New York Times called the new book “mature, complex and convincing.” Publishers Weekly called it “beautifully written if incoherent.” So there you are.