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The Time Traveler’s Wife is a touching and compulsively readable (or listenable) tale, partly high-concept, mostly finely realized love story focusing on fate, the pain and relief of being left behind, and the pain and excitement of leaving. Science fiction, literary fiction, romance, adventure, tear-jerker, laugh-inducer – it defies categorization.

The 2003 bestseller is being released this week in an unabridged audiobook version (16 CDs, 17 ¾ hours) that lets you savour every word, a welcome addition to the previous, abridged version (10 CDs or eight cassettes, 12 hours), both by Highbridge Audio.

The Time Traveler’s Wife covers the lifetime of Clare Abshire and her unusual romance with time traveling Henry DeTamble. Henry has been an integral part of Clare’s life since she was six, when his 36-year-old self appeared naked in the meadow outside her home, and reappeared at random intervals – and at random ages – over the years. To her surprise, he tells her they will eventually be married. Henry first met Clare when he was 28 and working at the Newberry Library, and she was a 20-year-old art student. To his surprise, she tells him they will eventually be married.

Niffenegger outlines the strict rules of time travel in her book’s world without getting bogged down in the inherent contradictions that might make your brain hurt. Henry can bring nothing through time, not clothes, not money, not even fillings. And nothing can be changed. He can’t go back in time and alter the future. Though, in one of those inevitable time travel paradoxes, of course his presence in the past has already affected the future.

The book portrays both a romantic and harsh view of time travel. Henry is attracted to the adventure and repelled by the danger and inconvenience. Naked, hungry, disoriented, he must run from the police, fight for protection, steal to provide for his out-of-time self.

Henry and Clare’s life together is unoriented in time. A memory for one is the future for another, their past and their present are so intertwined that they are literally fated to be together. The unusual romance could stand as a metaphor for romance itself – two people destined to be together, feeling as though they’ve known each other forever, knowing they would not be the person they are today without the other.

Novelist Niffenegger is also a visual artist who teaches at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, and those sensibilities come through in her vivid descriptions in general, and Clare’s art in particular. She paints delicately detailed characterizations not only of Henry and Clare, but their circle of friends and relatives, and coming to the end of the book is like losing touch with good friends.

I can only focus on audiobooks while driving, and The Time Traveler’s Wife made me wish my commute were even longer. Well, almost. Niffenegger’s delicious prose is well-suited to the dual reader strategy employed by Highbridge Audio, with William Hope reading Henry’s narration and Laurel Lefkow reading Clare’s.

Listening to a book is a very different experience from reading one. The occasional quirk of pronunciation distracts a little, the very occasional difference between my interpretation of mood and the readers’ distracted slightly more. Hope maintains a wry, ironic tone that doesn’t fit with my mental soundtrack of Henry, but Lefkow perfectly captures the innocent wonder of the child Clare, the rapid-tongued nervousness of the teenage Clare, and the poised bemusement of the adult Clare.

To hear a clip, or to order directly from the publisher, visit the Highbridge Audio website. The book and audiobook versions are also available from Amazon.


(Cross posted to Blogcritics)