The Time Traveler’s Wife Made Me Think of My Mom

Over the past week, I read The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, which was published in 2003, and made into a film starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana in 2009.

I would first like to say that the book cover creeps me out —










Just look at those hideous shoes. Blech. So much blech.

The little girl standing next to those hideous brown shoes is just creepy.

Creepy, creepy, creepy.

Plus, I think this might have been the book that forever marked “women’s fiction” novels as often having covers with little girls (or — even more popular — little girls’ legs) as a primary graphic.

For example, here’s The Language of Flowers (published 2012) —










What a Mother Knows (2013) —










And, of course, this updated cover of Lolita










If I ever try to put a little girl’s legs on a book cover, I hope someone reminds me how much I dislike this, and whaps me on the head with some frozen tuna, because I obviously need some sense knocked into me.

I’m not a big women’s fiction fan — it’s actually a genre I try to avoid, and publishers make that easy by slapping little girls’ legs on the covers, as well as back-views of grown women with misty lighting and swirly fonts.

These books are just not my thing.

But the time had come for me to read The Time Traveler’s Wife. The universe spoke, and I had to listen.

I’ve read around 60 books in 2014, many of them lackluster or outright punishing reads, so I figured I had nothing to lose by adding one more such novel to my “I’ve finally read this” list.

Why did I avoid reading this novel for so long?

Well, that would be due to Manohla Dargis’s review in The New York Times for the film, in which she wrote, “You could say that The Time Traveler’s Wife is a science-fictiony romance about eternal love and all that sniffy, weepy stuff. Or you could think of it as a crazy story about a stalker who sweet-talks a little girl whom he later seduces when she’s a teenager only to then knock her up and emotionally, psychologically and spiritually knock her down again and again, as he hopscotches naked across the time-space continuum.”

Then Ms. Dargis really gets going —

“Of course one woman’s romantic fantasy can be another’s gas-lighted nightmare, which is why it’s easy to read Audrey Niffenegger’s chart-busting novel in such dramatically different ways. A chronological confusion, it turns on a contemporary romance between an unwilling time traveler, Henry, and the woman he marries, Clare. In the novel the romance comes across as airy and coy and unpersuasive. But what feels light on the page can seem exceedingly ponderous once a filmmaker transposes those words into the visual realm. It is, after all, one thing to read about a naked guy talking up a 6-year-old girl while he’s hiding in some bushes. It’s another thing entirely to watch the big, strapping, healthy Eric Bana groping the greens.”

Yeah, that was enough to make me never want to read the book.

But the universe called, and it was time.

One thing I’ll say for Henry and Clare: they are both mildly-grody people with highly dislikeable traits, but they also both suffer a lot in this book. Their level of suffering is on a scale that would never in a million years make it into a movie. Especially not the movie made in 2009, which I watched right after I finished the book. There’s just no comparison between the horror a book can portray, and the horror a movie can show.

Henry suffers so much in this book, and Clare suffers because Henry keeps disappearing to time travel, and then disappears forever, and the book has a really brutal ending.

However. The movie wasn’t as bad as Manohla Dargis made it sound, and the final scenes made me get teary enough that I ended up with a headache and had to go to bed early. (The older I get, any amount of teariness induces a headache, and I hate tear-headaches because I just don’t ever get headaches otherwise, and I am a wimp.)

The one redeeming feature of my tear-headache was the fact Eric Bana is hot in this movie —








Also, Rachel McAdams has such beautiful eyes, like the view of the night sky from the high desert mountains in Chile — so between Eric Bana’s total hotness and Rachel McAdams’s gorgeous face, I can’t complain too much about the film. Compared to the book, the movie is flat and drained of its dirtiness and despair and gritty joy — and the costumes in the movie also suck — I mean, absolutely suck — compared to the luminous outfits these people wear in the book. Audrey Niffenegger is a beautiful writer, and her sentences are full of so many exquisite words and images — none of which survived the transformation into a screenplay.

But the movie is not horrible. It’s sappy, but it’s not Eragon bad. It’s not Glitter bad. Eric Bana has such a lovely deep voice, it’s simply impossible to make a bad movie with him in the leading role.

Why did the filmmakers change the costumes so much?

Probably to hide the fact that Clare is really rich in the book — really rich — and it’s one of her most dislikeable traits, how she comes from all this money but still has “such a hard life” because her mom isn’t warm and cuddly and her dad is fixated on appearances and her brother is kind of a jerk.

If that was the most of my worries from childhood — well, hello — I’d trade my life for Clare’s any day.

But I wouldn’t want Clare’s life with Henry, so I totally pass on this fantasy. Thank you, universe, for not making me Clare in this book.

I spent some time on Audrey Niffenegger’s author website after reading the novel, and discovered that a lot of her personal life was woven into The Time Traveler’s Wife. Like Clare, Ms. Niffenegger has red hair, and grew up with money in Chicago. (In Evanston, to be specific — that’s a big money-section of Chicago, which is also where my mother grew up.) Like Clare, Ms. Niffenegger is an artist who works with paper, and — like Henry — she’s doesn’t watch TV and *loves* punk music.

But it was how similar Clare was to my own mother that really had me hooked.

My mom grew up in a *huge* Evanston home with 22 rooms (or some crazy number) — and, also like Clare in the book, my mom’s parents kept a cook and a maid (and I think they lived there in the home with them, the same way Clare’s family’s hired help do in the novel). Like Clare’s mother, my mom’s mother was an alcoholic who was not warm and cuddly, and my mother’s father (like Clare’s father) was more concerned with making money than spending quality time with his family. (However — unlike the book — I think my grandfather had been married four times before he married my grandmother, and I think he was still married to his fourth wife when he married her. Because my family is classy like that.)

So I felt this connection to Clare because I kept reading my mother into her character, since their backgrounds were so similar (*huge* home with servants, with parents who were lacking, un-great relationships with siblings, and a whole life that revolves around a guy and wanting babies) — and my mom also went to a private school (like Clare’s) up until my mom was 13, when her family sent her out of the city, to a small town in central Illinois called Shelbyville.

The way my mother grew up, and the way I grew up, are several galaxies apart. I still have trouble comprehending the drastic difference between me and my mother sometimes. We are such aliens to each other, such polar opposites in all ways, I might as well have been beamed in from another planet and labeled her child.

Which is not to say I don’t love my mom. I definitely love my mom. And I do resemble her in a physical way — we both have brown hair and brown eyes — but psychologically, we are a different species.

But this is what novels do — you think you’re reading about other people, but you’re really always reading about *you* on the page — or, in this case, I was reading about my mother.

These were my final thoughts on the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife —

This is one of those books people either love or they hate. I loved it. The characters feel deeply for each other, suffer greatly (and I mean *suffer* here, this book gets incredibly dark in places), and then these beloved characters experience tragedy by the end. Such beautiful darkness in this novel, and the writing is superb. I was sucked into this story from the opening lines, hit a bit of a lull halfway in, and then devoured the rest of the book in a hate-to-put-it-down kind of way. Near the very end of the book, Henry has a nightmare, and the way he describes the dream, Ms. Niffenegger has written the most exquisite metaphor for life I have ever read: “And I dance. I am blinded by the lights, I dance without thinking, without knowing the steps, in an ecstasy of pain. Finally I fall to my knees, sobbing, and the audience rises to their feet, and applauds.” This book is a whirlwind of ugliness, beauty, pleasure, and pain. A great read.

So. Dearest blog reader. What about you? Have you read this book? Did you love it? Did you hate it? Why?

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1 Response to The Time Traveler’s Wife Made Me Think of My Mom

  1. Liz says:

    I adored this book. Like you said, both characters were not great people and they suffer so much, but I didn’t really mind their flaws. I would read it again and again because of how human they are and how believable and sad the story was.


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