The gimmick in this book is deliciously simple. The lives of two lovers, Henry and Clare, and bound together by destiny. They meet, fall in love, get married, have a child… so far so normal. The interesting bit lies in the opening of the book describing their first meeting: she first meets him in her parents’ garden when she is 6 years old; but he first meets her in a library when she is 20.
Welcome to Audrey Niffenegger’s quirky science fiction romance. Henry suffers from a genetic disorder that causes him to move around in space-time, usually to the past, occasionally to the future. There’s no grandfather paradox here, but a very deterministic view of space-time that would probably irritate physicists and philosophers alike. When Henry meets Clare for the first time, she has already known him most of her life, essentially forming the basis for his future trips to her past.
There’s a lot of potential for confusion here, with sometimes multiple versions of Henry appearing in the same scene, and a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing in time, but there’s nothing overtly complex about the storyline. The book is really well structured, to keep the little bits of information dripping, looking at events from different perspectives, and gradually driving the story to its inevitable conclusion. Because of its nature, I imagine the book would make a lot of fun to read a second time.
Many other reviewers accuse the book of being dull and overhyped. Both charges are merited. On the first count, if you took out the time travelling and straightened out the storyline, there wouldn’t be very much to tell. This may seem like unjustified criticism – like suggesting that Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs would be a humdrum version of The Swiss Family Robinson – but the novel really doesn’t have very much substance. There are a couple of violent episodes, a few deaths, and lots of sex, but otherwise the plot can be summed up on the back of an envelope. The time travelling pretty much revolves around their love story, and the rest of the world turns in blissful silence. In fact, the one time our protagonists act to watch something from Henry’s future, it’s that gag-inducing must mention of the 11th of September attacks.
Nevertheless, for an ’empty’ novel of 500-odd pages, it is extremely entertaining. The author has delivered a touching, times heart-rending love story with an interesting twist, and presented it well. As long as you don’t open this book expecting mind-altering philosophy or sky-splintering fireworks, you should be pleasantly surprised.