[A few very minor plot spoilers in this one.]
There are a few reasons I’m looking forward to watching The Time Traveler’s Wife when it hits theaters later this month, the most obvious of which is that the members of Broken Social Scene make a guest appearance as the wedding band. I am also curious (though doubtful) to see if screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (author of Ghost), is able to transform the story to fit the requisite formula of Hollywood blockbusters without sacrificing the subtleties that raise the novel above your standard “Oprah’s Book Club love story vacation paperback” (an actual genre methinks).
The thing about love stories is that they are so rarely about love. Love as a long haul that is. Rather they are about falling in love and, optionally, dying in love. Everything else is edited out in the interest of maintaining attention. To a point that is also true of The Time Traveler’s Wife, but Niffenegger is able to escape the banality of Real Life by giving the male protagonist of the love story, Henry, a genetic condition which causes him to travel backward and forward in time to visit his mother, himself, but mostly to visit his life love, Clare, at various stages of her life. Because of Henry’s time traveling ways, Clare meets a 30-something Henry when she is just a small child. But Henry doesn’t meet Clare for the first time until he is 28.
(When Henry-the-time-traveler spends time with Clare-the-child he has knowledge of what their life together will become; when Henry-the 28-year-old meets Clare for the first time only she is aware of her childhood experiences with the man that Henry will eventually become. Confusing, I know. I recommend reading the book.)
Here is Clare’s first encounter with Henry’s father (whose wife died when Henry was a small child):
“But don’t you think,” I persist, “that it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lost it than to be just okay your whole life?”
Mr. DeTamble Regards me. He takes his hands away from his face and stares. Then he says, “I’ve often wondered about that. Do you believe that?”
I think about my childhood, all the waiting, and wondering, and the joy of seeing Henry walking through the Meadow after not seeing him for weeks, months, and I think about what it was like not to see him for two years and then to find him standing in the Reading Room at the Newberry Library: the joy of being able to touch him, the luxury of knowing where he is, of knowing he loves me. “Yes,” I say. “I do.” I meet Henry’s eyes and smile.
About ten years later Henry disappears while in bed and time travels – as a mid-30’s adult – back to Clare on her 18th birthday. Unbeknownst to Henry (for Clare never told him) he is about to make love to his future wife for the first time. (The ‘future wife’ bit makes the ‘middle aged man sleeping with 18-year-old girl’ bit slightly less skeazy.)
Henry then time travels back to the present, back to Clare his adult wife who knew all along that one day he too would experience the first time they made love together.
“Henry jumps up and turns the thermostat higher. The furnace kicks in. “How long was I gone?”
“Almost a whole day.”
Henry sighs. “Was it worth it? A day of anxiety in exchange for a few really beautiful hours?”
These are just two examples of a theme that spreads itself throughout the story; that, in Clare’s own words, “it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while … than to be just okay your whole life.” It is a point that I naturally relate to; after all, most of my adult life has been about disregarding mild contentment while in search of ephemeral moments of elation. But then the grass is always greener. Now, nearing 30, having traveled to over 60 countries, very little seems so elated as long streaks of mere mild contentment.
My biggest frustration has nothing to do with the novel itself, but rather its unavoidable premise: that our lives are governed by fate, that our future and past are written inflexibly in stone. A character of the novel shares my unapologetic distaste of fate to such a degree that she takes it to the most extreme conclusion. (After all, if everything is already decided why waste our time making decisions?)
But such a minor metaphysical inconvenience didn’t prevent me from frequently staring off into the hills of Alentejo while enjoyably meditating on the more applicable themes of the novel: can love conquer time? how would our past, present and future selves interact with one another? can you fall in love with the same person more than once? and, perhaps most prominently, are a few moments of ecstasy worth more than a long life of just ok?