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Why I am not Enjoying The Time Traveler’s Wife

August 14, 2009

So I read part of this book over my sister’s shoulder on a plane once and decided to read it.  I normally stay away from most best sellers because I’m bitter and grumpy and contrarian like that.  I also was sortof turned off by the whole framing of the title being the Such and so’s Wife, not something I really appreciate.   (VAGUE SPOILER WARNING)

As far as it being a “such and so’s wife book” it is better than I expected.  Claire, the wife, is a fairly interesting character with her own voice in the story and I think her reflecting on staying behind while her husband has “adventures” is really interesting and relateable as a woman.  I’m not saying it is actually GOOD but it is better than I thought it would be.

The thing that is bugging me about this book is actually a total surprise.  I find it really grating that as a couple they are just such…. Fucking…. HIPSTERS for lack of a better term.  They are of course into all kinds of super awesome old music that was like so awesome at the time (and is still classic now.)  And then of course they both have super awesome artsy careers, a historical librarian and a sculptor.  And they have all the money they could ever want because of time travel.  Plus they are just so perfectly in love and happy with eachother.

And I’m sorry, something about the combination of all that just makes me want to throw my iPod onto the third rail and watch it burn.  (Except I couldn’t afford to buy new iPod, so y’know, not doing that.)

Maybe it is just my general outcastiness, but reading about two conventionally attractive white people with all the money they could want who live in Chicago and have really cool careers and never have to sacrifice anything for those careers (or their career for anything else) and do all these cool urban things and blah blah blah blah blah.  FUCK YOU PEOPLE.

And they do have lots of struggles in the book, it’s not like they are describing some perfect life.  The struggle they are dealing with right now, having a kid, is of so little interest to me and keeps totally grossing me out, so I think my issues with their overall coolness are being exacerbated as a result.  And the whole involuntary Time Travel issue is really a major hurdle for both of them.  But I still can’t get over how fucking lucky they are besides that, and the book doesn’t seem to really acknowledge that much from a “privelege” standpoint.

Or perhaps this book is bringing to light some unresolved issues I may have about my chosen path in life.

So yeah, Agree? Disagree?  Am I just missing some deep philosophical meaning?  Are you seeing the movie?  Do I need a therapist?

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21 Comments
  1. randomquorum permalink

    I actually REALLY enjoyed this book, which surprised me because its not the genre I normally favour.

    However, I did read this before I learned about privilege, and frankly the characters’ privilege is pretty much the same as mine, so I guess I never noticed all that stuff while I was reading it. Well, except I don’t have an artsy career I guess, but yeah…

    When I read it, it was at the suggestion of a workmate who lent it to me, and I then bought it for my mum and made my whole family read it 😛

    Hopefully you’ll finish the book despite your annoyances – I promise not to give anything away!

    And maybe I will re-read it with a more privilege-analytical eye.

  2. Laura P permalink

    The part of the book that really annoyed me is that he went out and shagged as many women as he liked, but when *she* shagged someone else.. OH NOES! It was a disaster and she felt guilty and horrible. Because we’re meant to save ourselves for our men, you know.

    And yes, the privilege too. Blah.

  3. Ah, the hipsterism probably would turn me off. It sounds like The Amazing Adventures of Mary and Gary Stu, too, which is a big blergh causer for me. I can see taking some class obstacles out of the way to foster storytelling, it would be boring to read about someone flipping burgers in order to afford to time travel. It’s just, after you get past a certain point you’re just rubbing your reader’s nose in how awesome it is to be financially worry-free, and then you add super awesome time travelling on top of that.

    It’s like packing too many cool things onto your RPG character, nobody else at the table has the patience to hear about your jet setting millionaire philanthropist warlock ninja for the billionth time.

  4. You’re dissing my favourite book, Shinobi! I will be seeing the movie though, (unusually for me, who likes to play “compare and contrast”), I’ll be doing so with trepidation because – well – favourite book and all.

    Um – have to say you are coming off just a mite bitter and twisted. Firstly, because Henry and Claire do have their share of really quite awful problems – as do most people in real life, regardless of whatever privileges they may or may not enjoy. Secondly, because the idea of boho artistic types being well off is a literary conceit on Niffenegger’s part. Most people with interesting arty-farty jobs earn bugger all. Believe me – I work with them for a living; I am one myself and so are most of my friends. The only friend I have who is financially secure, nay wealthy, works in I.T. Thirdly, there’s no shortage of fiction or non-fiction about growing up in poverty, abuse, loneliness, sickness or war zones, if the privilege factor gets your goat. Most writers are advised to write about what they know and Niffenegger happens to be hip, white, arty and middle class. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have anything to say to folk who don’t happen to fall into those categories or that what she has to say is somehow tainted or bogus or unauthentic. I don’t feel it incumbent on her as an author to acknowledge the privilege of her characters; it’s not a morality tale – it’s a love story rendered epic by supernatural circumstances. It’s about fate and free will and – um – time travel.

  5. O.C. permalink

    I really enjoyed the suspense of the plot. The hipsterism/privilege didn’t bother me at the time, in the way you’re describing. But I did see it as an element of lazy writing. Like, instead of researching and creating new characters, Niffenegger probably was describing the details of her own life, or the lives of close friends. I mean, a paper artist? I find it hard to believe that she was writing about something new and unusual there. She probably just does paper art herself.

    Which is fine in a way, I guess. Why shouldn’t she write about what she wants to?

    I do hesitate to see the movie, though, because the actors are just too pretty-pretty for me to identify with.

  6. While the premise is interesting and the writing is decent enough, this book annoyed the hell out of me. But that was only after I’d finished reading it and had some time to digest it. Good luck getting through it. 😉

  7. Just for the record, I’m not saying what she did with the characters is actually a flaw. I’m just saying that for some reason it grates on my nerves. I get why she did it (my sister actually goes to the school she teaches at and has met her.) It’s just bugging the crap out of me right now for no good reason.

    It might be just that for me the characters are totally unrelateable right now. Which is usually fine with me in other novels I read because they are living a totally different experience. (even disregarding the time travel) Maybe it is just because I’m not used to reading books set in actual real life settings.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I like about the book, the historical references and the plot are awesome. I really think the problem is probably ME and not the book.

  8. It took me a while to get into this book and by the end, I fucking loved it. I can’t wait to see the film version if only out of wonderment how they made a movie make any coherent sense.

    Sure, Henry and Claire are privileged hipsters, but it was the time travel and the inherent romantic struggle that captivated me. I read fiction books as an escape from issues of privilege and -isms and all those subjects that are truly depressing when you realize how prevalent and ingrained they still are.

  9. HairyLegs permalink

    I totally had the same reaction you did, Shinobi. I find it really hard to get emotionally engaged with beautiful hipster characters. I kept rooting for bad things to happen to them.

    And I still feel icky about the older man younger girl thing.

  10. Meems permalink

    I really enjoyed the book. For some reason I thought I’d read it when I was quite a bit younger, but it was only published in 2003, so I guess that memory is wrong…Regardless, I also read it before I was really conscious of privilege, so I was probably less aware than I am now.

    On a slightly related note, I have a friend in Oxford who makes a pretty comfortable living as an historical librarian, so that’s not so unrealistic.

  11. littlem permalink

    @Meems – Oxford, England? B/c that’s where a fair number of my friends/acquaintances who read authors like Niffenegger happen to be around, or from, or attending.

    Which actually explains a great deal, and is on-topic in a way I’m not quite equipped to deal with this particular Friday, and very off-topic in another way, so I’ll be moving on now …

    The other thing I’d say, Shinobi, is if you want a couple of other authors who aren’t soaked in that kind of privilege as somewhat bracing tonic remedies, off the top of my head, I’d recommend ZZ Packer and Junot Diaz.

    They may make you throw the books across the room for other reasons, but (other than Diaz’ male privilege, and the way he examines/depicts in in his books actually gives one some interesting things to think about) not that one.

  12. Laura permalink

    This book was so terrible that just thinking about it fills me with rage. It was chosen for reading in a book group I was in so I felt I had to stick with it to the bloody end, but my god was it rot. Insipid prose; flat, false characters; creepy male main character; and utterly pointless story. Just. The. Worst. Ever.

  13. Sarah L permalink

    In short, the book is intensely sexist, racist, and classist; and it’s got some sizist thrown in for good measure. While the story is good and the philosophical questions are interesting, I just can’t ignore the -isms.

  14. Lara permalink

    I enjoyed the book a lot, too, but I admit I was a little irked when, in the beginning of the marriage, the couple notices that neither of them like cleaning the house, so they got a maid service. WTF? This is BEFORE he time-travel-cheats to get them big bucks, so they were not living large.

  15. Eve permalink

    I thought the book was squcky, what with Henry being sort of a father figure to Claire when she was little, the initiating her into the ways of sex… *vomits* At the time I didn’t think much about the characters’ privilege, but that’s another reason to hate it. Sure, the time travel stuff was interesting, but meh, there are lots of good books out there. I don’t think this one deserves all the praise it’s gotten. I also hate the idea that they were MEANT for each other, and she knew her whole life who she was going to grow up and marry, and was fine with it.

    One bit I did like was when Henry is about 13, and he hangs out with his couple of months older/younger version, and they have sex because why not? That totally amuses me because I’m a pervert, apparently.

  16. Eve permalink

    oh, oops, I meant “squicky.”

  17. sarah permalink

    I read this a couple years ago, and I really, really liked it. I thought Niffenegger did a good job of putting an interesting twist on what is essentially just a relationship drama. I also think it’s well-written. As an aspiring librarian with a taste for indie music, I enjoyed those aspects of Henry’s character, though other things about him bothered me. I didn’t really find Clare annoying until I got to the part you’re at right now, with her obsession for wanting to have a baby, even though it’s dangerous for her and the oven-bun. That’s *my* own personal bias, though, since I’m not interested in having children.
    FWIW, my partner is reading it right now (in anticipation of the film), and he really doesn’t like it (he’s one of those who has to finish whatever book he starts). He is decidedly non-hipster, so he may be having similar issues to yours.
    I am glad you brought up the privilege issues, I hadn’t really processed that part of it. I don’t think I scrutinize novels for that stuff as much as I do films and tv, maybe because it seems like there are a broader range of stories being told, or else because my imagination has more control over what the story looks like to me?

  18. Emmy permalink

    tangentially – I used to read a lot of lesbian (‘uber-Xena’) fiction and one problem I kept coming up against was how common it seemed to be for the writers to make both characters stupidly rich. They couldn’t mark their relationship with anything less than a platinum ring with three diamonds and a honeymoon in Hawaii. Yes, it’s happy fantasy stuff and people want to imagine having these great lives, but… it was kinda hard to relate to.

    Worse, sometimes when they featured poor characters, they had to be The Most Virtuous Poor Person In The World, who works 80-hours a week and starves herself and gives all her money to charity and rescues kittens. Bleh.

  19. Sometimes I think authors make characters rich (or richish) so as to a) provide lots of time to do other things, and/or b) so money isn’t a worry. I think the epitome of this could be Lord Peter Wimsey, who had loads of time to run around detectin’ because he was rich. Then there’s author’s wish-fulfillment…! Wimsey’s creator once wrote that:

    Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.

    Which as may be, but I can’t help but wonder if it was really so she could live vicariously through him or if it made for a better story not to have him have to wrangle with a day-job!

  20. “At the time I didn’t think much about the characters’ privilege, but that’s another reason to hate it.”

    And there, in a nut shell, the reason I’m beginning to lose the will to live every time the word “privilege” comes up on the fat-o-sphere.

  21. Catherine permalink

    In Memorial Hospital, New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, Emmett Everett, a 380-pound paraplegic patient who was alert, talking, and in good spirits died, allegedly as a result of a lethal dose of drugs administered by a doctor. Why? The doctor felt that, because of his size, his evacuation from the hospital would be too difficult and time-consuming for the medical personnel and rescue workers. A grand jury refused to indict the doctor. This is a long article, but please read it. Please blog about it. Please get this story out there. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/magazine/30doctors.html?_r=1&hpw

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