A most untraditional love story, this is the celebrated tale of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who inadvertently travels through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate affair endures across a sea of time and captures them in an impossibly romantic trap that tests the strength of fate and basks in the bonds of love. “Niffenegger’s inventive and poignant writing is well worth a trip” (Entertainment Weekly).
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 13, 1963
Place of Birth:South Haven, Michigan
Education:B.F.A., School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1985; M.F.A., Northwestern University, 1991
Read an Excerpt
OUT OF TIME
Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
...Ah, but what can we take along
into that other realm? Not the art of looking,
which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.
The sufferings, then. And, above all, the heaviness,
and the long experience of love,-just what is wholly
- from The Ninth Duino Elegy,
RAINER MARIA RILKE,
translated by STEPHEN MITCHELL
FIRST DATE, ONE
Saturday, October 26, 1991 (Henry is 28, Clare is 20)
CLARE: The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble. I sign the Visitors' Log: Clare Abshire, 11:15 10-26-91 Special Collections. I have never been in the Newberry Library before, and now that I've gotten past the dark, foreboding entrance I am excited. I have a sort of Christmas-morning sense of the library as a big box full of beautiful books. The elevator is dimly lit, almost silent. I stop on the third floor and fill out an application for a Reader's Card, then I go upstairs to Special Collections. My boot heels rap the wooden floor. The room is quiet and crowded, full of solid, heavy tables piled with books and surrounded by readers. Chicago autumn morning light shines through the tall windows. I approach the desk and collect a stack of call slips. I'm writing a paper for an art history class. My research topic is the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. I look up the book itself and fill out a call slip for it. But I also want to read about papermaking at Kelmscott. The catalog is confusing. I go back to the desk to ask for help. As I explain to the woman what I am trying to find, she glances over my shoulder at someone passing behind me. "Perhaps Mr. DeTamble can help you," she says. I turn, prepared to start explaining again, and find myself face to face with Henry.
I am speechless. Here is Henry, calm, clothed, younger than I have ever seen him. Henry is working at the Newberry Library, standing in front of me, in the present. Here and now. I am jubilant. Henry is looking at me patiently, uncertain but polite.
"Is there something I can help you with?" he asks.
"Henry!" I can barely refrain from throwing my arms around him. It is obvious that he has never seen me before in his life.
"Have we met? I'm sorry, I don't...." Henry is glancing around us, worrying that readers, co-workers are noticing us, searching his memory and realizing that some future self of his has met this radiantly happy girl standing in front of him. The last time I saw him he was sucking my toes in the Meadow.
I try to explain. "I'm Clare Abshire. I knew you when I was a little girl..." I'm at a loss because I am in love with a man who is standing before me with no memories of me at all. Everything is in the future for him. I want to laugh at the weirdness of the whole thing. I'm flooded with years of knowledge of Henry, while he's looking at me perplexed and fearful. Henry wearing my dad's old fishing trousers, patiently quizzing me on multiplication tables, French verbs, all the state capitals; Henry laughing at some peculiar lunch my seven-year-old self has brought to the Meadow; Henry wearing a tuxedo, undoing the studs of his shirt with shaking hands on my eighteenth birthday. Here! Now! "Come and have coffee with me, or dinner or something...." Surely he has to say yes, this Henry who loves me in the past and the future must love me now in some bat-squeak echo of other time. To my immense relief he does say yes. We plan to meet tonight at a nearby Thai restaurant, all the while under the amazed gaze of the woman behind the desk, and I leave, forgetting about Kelmscott and Chaucer and floating down the marble stairs, through the lobby and out into the October Chicago sun, running across the park scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing.
HENRY: It's a routine day in October, sunny and crisp. I'm at work in a small windowless humidity-controlled room on the fourth floor of the Newberry, cataloging a collection of marbled papers that has recently been donated. The papers are beautiful, but cataloging is dull, and I am feeling bored and sorry for myself. In fact, I am feeling old, in the way only a twenty-eight-year-old can after staying up half the night drinking overpriced vodka and trying, without success, to win himself back into the good graces of Ingrid Carmichel. We spent the entire evening fighting, and now I can't even remember what we were fighting about. My head is throbbing. I need coffee. Leaving the marbled papers in a state of controlled chaos, I walk through the office and past the page's desk in the Reading Room. I am halted by Isabelle's voice saying, "Perhaps Mr. DeTamble can help you," by which she means "Henry, you weasel, where are you slinking off to?" And this astoundingly beautiful amber-haired tall slim girl turns around and looks at me as though I am her personal Jesus. My stomach lurches. Obviously she knows me, and I don't know her. Lord only knows what I have said, done, or promised to this luminous creature, so I am forced to say in my best librarianese, "Is there something I can help you with?" The girl sort of breathes "Henry!" in this very evocative way that convinces me that at some point in time we have a really amazing thing together. This makes it worse that I don't know anything about her, not even her name. I say "Have we met?" and Isabelle gives me a look that says You asshole. But the girl says, "I'm Clare Abshire. I knew you when I was a little girl," and invites me out to dinner. I accept, stunned. She is glowing at me, although I am unshaven and hung over and just not at my best. We are going to meet for dinner this very evening, at the Beau Thai, and Clare, having secured me for later, wafts out of the Reading Room. As I stand in the elevator, dazed, I realize that a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of my future has somehow found me here in the present, and I start to laugh. I cross the lobby, and as I run down the stairs to the street I see Clare running across Washington Square, jumping and whooping, and I am near tears and I don't know why.
Later that evening:
HENRY: At 6:00 p.m. I race home from work and attempt to make myself attractive. Home these days is a tiny but insanely expensive studio apartment on North Dearborn; I am constantly banging parts of myself on inconvenient walls, countertops and furniture. Step One: unlock seventeen locks on apartment door, fling myself into the living room-which-is-also-my-bedroom and begin stripping off clothing. Step Two: shower and shave. Step Three: stare hopelessly into the depths of my closet, gradually becoming aware that nothing is exactly clean. I discover one white shirt still in its dry cleaning bag. I decide to wear the black suit, wing tips, and pale blue tie. Step Four: don all of this and realize I look like an FBI agent. Step Five: look around and realize that the apartment is a mess. I resolve to avoid bringing Clare to my apartment tonight even if such a thing is possible. Step Six: look in full-length bathroom mirror and behold angular, wild-eyed 6' 1" ten-year-old Egon Schiele look-alike in clean shirt and funeral director suit. I wonder what sorts of outfits this woman has seen me wearing, since I am obviously not arriving from my future into her past wearing clothes of my own. She said she was a little girl? A plethora of unanswerables runs through my head. I stop and breathe for a minute. Okay. I grab my wallet and my keys, and away I go: lock the thirty-seven locks, descend in the cranky little elevator, buy roses for Clare in the shop in the lobby, walk two blocks to the restaurant in record time but still five minutes late. Clare is already seated in a booth and she looks relieved when she sees me. She waves at me like she's in a parade.
"Hello," I say. Clare is wearing a wine-colored velvet dress and pearls. She looks like 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. I thrust the roses at her. "For you."
"Thank you," says Clare, absurdly pleased. She looks at me and realizes that I am confused by her response. "You've never given me flowers before."
I slide into the booth opposite her. I'm fascinated. This woman knows me; this isn't some passing acquaintance of my future hegiras. The waitress appears and hands us menus.
"Tell me," I demand.
"Everything. I mean, do you understand why I don't know you? I'm terribly sorry about that-"
"Oh, no, you shouldn't be. I mean, I know...why that is." Clare lowers her voice. "It's because for you none of it has happened yet, but for me, well, I've known you for a long time."
Copyright © 2003 by Audrey Niffenegger
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Time Traveler’s Wife includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Audrey Niffenegger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Audrey Niffenegger includes a section of The Odyssey at the end of the book. In many ways Clare and Henry are a modern Penelope and Odysseus. What parallels do you see? Are there other couples in literature that remind you of Clare and Henry?
2. On page xv, Clare says, “I wait for Henry.” One of her art projects focuses on birds and longing. How is Clare shaped by waiting and absence? How do these themes develop throughout the novel?
3. On page xviii, Henry says, “I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet I am always going, and she cannot follow.” Do you see Henry as a traveler, an adventurer? Or is he a victim of chance?
4. Defining moments in Henry’s life become points in the past that he revisits. The death of Henry’s mother is one of these pivotal events. How does losing his mother define Henry? What other key moments are like this one?
5. Was Henry right to give young Clare a list of when he would visit? Was she too young, even though Henry knew they would be together in the future? Would you want the list if you were Clare?
6. Henry says, on page 55, “[T]here is only free will when you are in time, in the present . . . in the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there.” Was Henry destined to live his life as he did? Did he have a choice in every moment? Are there things you think he should have tried to change?
7. How do you view Gomez? Was he ultimately more helpful or harmful as a friend to Henry? What would you have done in his shoes?
8. Henry and Clare disagree over having a child, with strong arguments on both sides. Henry wants to protect Clare, and Clare doesn’t want to give up (though she thinks of doing so until a Henry from the future assures her that eventually they succeed). Who do you think is right?
9. Alba has more control over her ability to time travel, and she has the benefit of Henry’s experience, but we don’t know if there will be a cure for the genetic disorder causing her Chrono-Impairment. What do you imagine for Alba’s future?
10. The dynamics of Clare and Henry’s relationship are such that they deal with their past, present, and future selves simultaneously. On pages 146–47, Clare says, “With Henry, I can see everything laid out, like a map, past and future, everything at once. . . . I can reach into him and touch time.” What do you imagine this would be like? What tactics do they use to reconcile their past, present, and future selves?
11. The ending is foreshadowed early in the book, driving the novel toward the final scene where an elderly Clare awaits Henry’s last visit. How did this affect your reading experience? Do you ultimately find the book uplifting, or is it tragic?
12. Audrey Niffenegger has said that she had two rules while writing the novel:
1. Everything happens once and nothing can be changed once it has happened.
2. Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel. He cannot control it and it is not his fault.
Do you think this made the idea of time travel more credible? Have you read other time-travel novels? Do you think the authors were similarly precise about how they managed the complexity of characters who are not confined by time?
A Conversation with Audrey Niffenegger
How did you begin to envision this story? Did an image, a character, some dialogue, or something else trigger the idea?
I was making a drawing and the phrase “the time traveler’s wife” popped into my head. So I wrote it on my drawing table and continued to draw. It was unrelated to anything I was drawing or thinking about, but it caught my attention. Who was this wife, why would anyone marry a time traveler? It must be lonely, being married to someone who is often away; it must be dangerous to be a time traveler. I had a mental image of a white-haired woman, alone in a sunny room, a cup of tea on the table before her, untouched; a woman waiting. How could I describe all that waiting, all the negative space around their marriage? I began to wonder how they’d met, who they were, what might befall them, this woman and man. I gave them names, Clare and Henry. That was the beginning, but it took almost five years to write the book.
As a graphic artist, did you ever consider presenting this story in another way? What led you to develop it into a novel?
For half an hour I imagined it as a graphic novel. Not comics, but the sort of book I’d made before, etchings with minimal text, such as The Adventuress or The Three Incestuous Sisters. But I understood that a story about time travel might be more agile if I only used words, letting the reader imagine the time shifts and jolts without my trying to depict them visually. Images can resort to all kinds of odd tricks to represent time, but prose can do it more easily. I had always wanted to try to write a novel, I’d written many short stories but never anything long, so I decided this would be my experiment with novel writing.
Did introducing the element of time travel present any writing challenges? What gave you the idea to make Henry’s ability to travel though time a genetic disorder? What “rules” did you establish for yourself?
The most important rules for this book were:
1. Everything happens once and nothing can be changed once it has happened.
2. Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel. He cannot control it and it is not his fault.
The first rule eliminates paradox and the butterfly effect, which are always a challenge for any writer of time travel stories. While they can yield some thought-provoking, marvelous stories (Back to the Future, Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder), I was more interested in the consequences of Henry and Clare’s actions and experiences. I didn’t want to let them undo and redo their lives endlessly. Using the concept of a block universe (also known as eternalism), in which all times exist at once, gave the novel a whiff of determinism and tragedy: Henry and Clare often know the future but they cannot alter it.
The second rule puts Henry at the mercy of his body and absolves him of responsibility for abandoning Clare so often. The idea of time travel as a genetic disorder came to me because in 1997, when I began to work on the book, genetics was much in the news; the race to decode human DNA was on then. I wanted something random but with rules, and a disease seemed to fit that need.
How did you track the chronology of Clare’s life, Henry’s life, and the progression of the book? Was it difficult to trace what Clare and Henry know, and how that affects their interactions, in any given moment?
I made two time lines: one for Clare, which adhered to normal chronology, and one for Henry and all his time-jumping, which also tracked what the reader knows and what the characters know in any scene. The book took me four and a half years to write, so there was time to consider continuity and to carefully build the structures of the whole novel.
Did you relate more to Henry or Clare? What was it like writing from both points of view?
It was very liberating to be able to hop back and forth and to offer the reader both sides of their story. I wanted to show a marriage from a cubist perspective, all vantage points in all time frames.
I identify with them both: Clare because she is an artist and a woman, Henry because I had given him my own voice, his voice is my natural one and his tastes and worldview are often mine.
Chicago is shown in great detail in the book. What made you choose it for the setting?
Chicago is my home and it is strangely underrepresented in literature. So I felt that it was mine for the taking, and I had great joy including the places I love in the story. There has been an unintended side effect: quite a lot of people have told me that they read TTW, decided to visit Chicago, and roamed around locating the places mentioned in the book. Some of these places have vanished in the years since TTW was published. Bookman’s Alley closed last Halloween, Don’s Coffee Club was gone even as I was writing the book. But you can still buy records at Vintage Vinyl and Opart is still the best Thai restaurant in Chicago. And of course the Newberry Library is still going strong.
There are so many literary allusions throughout, and Henry is a librarian at the Newberry. Do you share your characters’ love of books?
Oh yes. Yes. It’s gotten a little out of control, my book obsession. I trained as a book conservator, I bind books, I collect books, my house has so many books in it now that I am a little worried about its structural integrity.
On page 280, you write: “The compelling thing about making art— or making anything, I suppose—is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there, a thing, a substance in a world of substances.” Clare struggles with, but also lives for, her art. Do you have similar struggles and triumphs with your creative endeavors?
I tried to make Clare a different sort of artist than I am. She is interested in the natural world and in natural materials, she has a gift for sculpture and scale that I don’t have, she is making art about bodies and physicality that has a certain grandeur. My own art is odd, small-scaled, flat, narrative, and often autobiographical. My themes are love and death, sex and loss, the strangeness, the fleeting nature of it all. Clare might find my work a bit gloomy. But I did give her real studio practices, she works the way I would if I was making her art.
Clare is balancing her domestic life with her art life, something that I’ve not had to worry about so much as I am single. I think I have an easier time in the studio than Clare does. She has more distractions.
Clare says, “Everything seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence?” The time Clare and Henry are forced to spend apart certainly makes their relationship more intense. What appealed to you about such a complicated romance?
This intensity of absence seemed implicit in the idea of a time traveler’s wife, someone who had to live with uncertainty and worry until the time traveler returned safe and sound, again and again. To me there is something appealing about spending time apart and then coming together with tales to tell. But of course in the case of Henry and Clare, the beguiling thing that brings them together is also the malevolent thing that wrecks them.
Have you imagined what might happen to Alba outside the realm of The Time Traveler’s Wife?
I had always resisted thinking about Alba’s life beyond the confines of the book, because I was working on another novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. Recently, I wanted to write something extra for a new edition of TTW, and I wrote a small scene in which Alba and Clare visit a house that has secretly belonged to Alba since before she was born. And that was enough to get me curious. So I’ve been working on another book, to find out what happens to Alba.