The Time Traveler’s Wife

book by Audrey Niffenegger

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.

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Moral Disorder and Other Stories

book by Margaret Atwood

Annotation by Kat Kambes

At once saturated with wry humor and a piercing undertone, the stories compiled to create Atwood’s Moral Disorder moves across time focusing on intense points of Nell, the lead characters, life. Atwood grabbed hold of me right from the beginning and held me tight through her entire trip. It is a deeply provocative group of stories that combine more as a thread of autobiography. It isn’t quite autobiography, in that there are only points of life explored, and not quite fiction, as we get the sense that there is definite and real foundation that she is spieling from.

In the eleven stories that Atwood has presented us with, we negotiate our way back and forth through time – she stitches the fabric of her life together. There is something quite delicate in the way Atwood handles her memories. She hones in on very particular moments, expanding them as her lens moves in closely to scrutinize, finding that one crack in the world where understanding is gained. As in “Bad News” when the morning starts with the “news” over breakfast. “Look at the paper,” says Tig.” We witness the couple dancing around each other in a kind of tactful allegiance, drawn crisply as near polar opposites. “There are pictures. Is bad news worse with pictures? I think so. Pictures make you look, whether you want to or not….”

What really strikes me is how masterful Atwood is at what she does not say, always breathing deep into a situation and then leaving the reader to watch the air escape. In “The Art of Cooking and Serving” we learn all about a young girls anticipation over the birth of her sister, shrouded in fear and parental isolation, where she learns to be the most helpful and accepting daughter in all ways, but soon discovers an inner side to her developing, one in which she would no longer be compelled to always do everyone’s bidding – “Why should I?” I said. “She’s not my baby. I didn’t have her. You did.” This moment, as she liberated herself, her mother slapped her face forcefully. “…I also felt set free, as if released from an enchantment…another more secret life spread out before me, unrolling like dark fabric.” It is in these concise moments that Atwood captures something of her growing spirit, a spark of what is lit under the behavior of the tale itself that radiates the true story.

Each of these narratives touch upon an incident and draws out the blood of the moment, like some poison bite sucked to its surface. There is the precarious relationship with her younger sister, who is ultimately diagnosed with mental illness. There is her first love, who has the misfortune of being a math wiz and not an English wiz, and must prepare for a state English exam, one in which the fate of their future would be based upon in the school system they attended, and the desperate knowledge that “I’d be going on. I’d be finding things out. I’d be all on my own” and her first love would not.

She takes us through some unsettling issues with developing a relationship and then living with a married man, one in which she herself has plenty of misgivings about. There are several stories that touch upon this relationship, as well as the abundance of relationships surrounding it.

The title piece, “Moral Disorder” takes place as the couple Nell and Tig purchase their first place together, a farm in a rural community. Nell’s life is rapidly overcome with the needs of their homestead and attending to the myriad of animals which Tig is intent upon obtaining, as well as caring for his boys when they come up for weekends, plant a garden, and cook homemade bread and goodies. It is when they must slaughter one of the animals that Nell comes to grips with what farm life is really about, at what level of survival and what responsibility we have in the cycle of life. “Maybe she would grow cunning, up here on the farm. Maybe she would absorb some of the darkness, which might not be darkness at all but only knowledge…”

What I found Atwood most superb at is taking one item, one thing, and focusing in on that and building a story around it. We start with the newspaper, the knitting of a layette set, a paper mâché horse head, the poem “The Last Duchess,” the visiting odd guy, Owen, a game of Monopoly, a horse, Lillie, the adventure tale of The Labrador, a picture of some boys at her father’s lab, large and small things that she hitches her tale to. She utilizes the imagery to find her way into the story, but also to radiate some compelling issue or discovery from the time, overlapping and stitching as she goes, juxtaposing a story inside the story, as in the tale of the Labrador set against her father’s diminishing abilities; the adventurers desperate to find their way back home, her father, after multiple strokes, unable to find his way back “home” as well.

This group of stories, besides documenting a long life of familial joy and pain, moments of epiphany, also renders with warmth and humor a deep sense of Atwood’s own Canadian heritage, deeply rooted in a fondness for wilderness and nature, while struggling to have both autonomy and career. It is a most compelling journey. There are no big dramatic sweeps, but in the simplicity of real life, in the hearts of real people, in the tenderness of fragile moments, her life speaks to us. There were considerable gaps that struck this reader as noticeable, as in the amount of time she focused on the children of her lover, yet Nell’s own child was never portrayed or spoken of. While I do not doubt that she was with good reason to make this choice, it did feel that something as life altering as the birth of your own child might be considered in a book that attempted to touch upon the key turning points of one’s life.

Atwood seems to capture with such clarity and nuanced tone the fragrant moments of the life she did wish to portray however, that I am all at once moved to both re-read the pages, and find a paper mâché head in my own life.