About halfway through Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, you realize you're going to be devastated. You love the characters, you're deeply involved in their lives, you can sense tragedy coming and you know it's going to hurt. But there's no way you can stop reading. And that's exactly as it should be. The novel is all about unstoppable fate, inevitable heartbreak and how to keep trudging happily along when you know your path leads to despair. It's the story of a couple, Henry and Clare, told in alternating segments by each of them. And though it's about time travel, the book is more literary romance than science fiction. Henry is a 28-year-old librarian who has a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time involuntarily. Stacking books on the shelves in the library's inner sanctum, he'll suddenly vanish, leaving behind a pile of clothes, only to materialize in some unknown past or future moment, naked and nauseated. Often he travels to a certain Michigan meadow and visits a little girl Clare who sneaks him food and clothes.

So when Clare and Henry meet in "real time," October 1991, Clare has known him since she was 6. But Henry, now 28, doesn't recognize her, because he didn't start time traveling to Clare's meadow until he was older. Henry, for his part, has been time-traveling long enough to understand that certain events are bound to happen, no matter what.

If that sounds complicated, don't worry. Niffenegger structures the novel clearly enough that the timelines never get tangled, and her writing is so strong you'd keep going even if you did get confused. She's hip without being shallow. Her characters talk about punk rock and Rilke with equal enthusiasm, and their note-perfect dialogue is at once cool and clever, poetic and realistic. You like them and you want to save them from pain, but all you can do like Henry, like anyone is enjoy the story and try not to think about the inevitable end.

Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.

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