Just to clear the air, I’ll admit that this book looks as if it has a few strikes against it, but that should be ignored. Though its title implies such, it is neither romance nor science fiction, two genres that can frighten away potential readers. Also possibly counting against it is its bestseller status (the first page mentions that it’s a “Today Show Book Club Selection” – shudder…). Coolly detached readers may feel above a love story premise. While the characters here have sarcastic wit to spare, check your appetite for irony at the door. This is a book that explains what it is to be in love.
When the novel begins, protagonists Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire are not unlike the typical Beatbots reader: a hip young reference librarian and a fairly eccentric Art undergrad. The major difference (besides the backdrop of the Windy City instead of B’more or the nation’s capitol) is that Henry, due to a genetic disorder, involuntarily moves back and forth to different places in time. Unbeknownst to Henry, he and Clare have already fallen in love – in his future and her past. Well, in the physics of this novel, everything has already happened; Clare is already fully aware of their inevitable romance and marriage because she has already met the Henry of the future in her past. “Surely he has to say yes,” she thinks to herself, “this Henry who loves me in the past and the future must love me now in some bat-squeak echo of other time. To my immense relief he does say yes.”
The premise, so far, sounds pretty damn swell for the parties involved. (Henry even gets to see The New York Dolls, Smoking Popes, and other notables during his chronological sojourns). However, life’s not always great when you involuntarily disappear. Especially when you can’t take any clothes with you, and appear naked within range of the “unbelievably fucking cold” Lake Michigan air (or, even worse, have to witness the death of a loved one multiple times, “always crashing in the same car”). Henry’s friends want in on the action – “just tell me what happens!” one tellingly demands, referring to his knowledge of their future. “Yeah, sometimes it’s fun. But mostly it’s getting lost… and you can’t change anything” he replies to another. The blessing that has brought Henry and Clare together could, in the end, be a curse. But this is life in a nutshell – there is fortune and there is tragedy - and Audrey Niffenegger has given us a great portrait of life. Because her characters are people who squeeze the final drop out of existence, we know that everything was, and is, worth that love.
In terms of style, this book is notable for having some certifiably modern/contemporary elements (written in the present tense, multiple perspectives, a non-chronological narrative, etc.) and being accessible to young and old. It’s written in the first person (alternating between Henry and Clare), so most of the writing feels like casual dialogue without dumbing anything down. Highly recommended.