Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Time Traveler’s Wife includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Audrey Niffenegger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.



    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. Audrey Niffenegger includes a section of The Odyssey at the end of the book. In many ways Clare and Henry are a modern Penelope and Odysseus. What parallels do you see? Are there other couples in literature that remind you of Clare and Henry?

    2. On page xv, Clare says, “I wait for Henry.” One of her art projects focuses on birds and longing. How is Clare shaped by waiting and absence? How do these themes develop throughout the novel?

    3. On page xviii, Henry says, “I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet I am always going, and she cannot follow.” Do you see Henry as a traveler, an adventurer? Or is he a victim of chance?

    4. Defining moments in Henry’s life become points in the past that he revisits. The death of Henry’s mother is one of these pivotal events. How does losing his mother define Henry? What other key moments are like this one?

    5. Was Henry right to give young Clare a list of when he would visit? Was she too young, even though Henry knew they would be together in the future? Would you want the list if you were Clare?

    6. Henry says, on page 55, “[T]here is only free will when you are in time, in the present . . . in the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there.” Was Henry destined to live his life as he did? Did he have a choice in every moment? Are there things you think he should have tried to change?

    7. How do you view Gomez? Was he ultimately more helpful or harmful as a friend to Henry? What would you have done in his shoes?

    8. Henry and Clare disagree over having a child, with strong arguments on both sides. Henry wants to protect Clare, and Clare doesn’t want to give up (though she thinks of doing so until a Henry from the future assures her that eventually they succeed). Who do you think is right?

    9. Alba has more control over her ability to time travel, and she has the benefit of Henry’s experience, but we don’t know if there will be a cure for the genetic disorder causing her Chrono-Impairment. What do you imagine for Alba’s future?

    10. The dynamics of Clare and Henry’s relationship are such that they deal with their past, present, and future selves simultaneously. On pages 146–47, Clare says, “With Henry, I can see everything laid out, like a map, past and future, everything at once. . . . I can reach into him and touch time.” What do you imagine this would be like? What tactics do they use to reconcile their past, present, and future selves?

    11. The ending is foreshadowed early in the book, driving the novel toward the final scene where an elderly Clare awaits Henry’s last visit. How did this affect your reading experience? Do you ultimately find the book uplifting, or is it tragic?

    12. Audrey Niffenegger has said that she had two rules while writing the novel:

    1. Everything happens once and nothing can be changed once it has happened.
    2. Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel. He cannot control it and it is not his fault.

    Do you think this made the idea of time travel more credible? Have you read other time-travel novels? Do you think the authors were similarly precise about how they managed the complexity of characters who are not confined by time?

    A Conversation with Audrey Niffenegger

    How did you begin to envision this story? Did an image, a character, some dialogue, or something else trigger the idea?

    I was making a drawing and the phrase “the time traveler’s wife” popped into my head. So I wrote it on my drawing table and continued to draw. It was unrelated to anything I was drawing or thinking about, but it caught my attention. Who was this wife, why would anyone marry a time traveler? It must be lonely, being married to someone who is often away; it must be dangerous to be a time traveler. I had a mental image of a white-haired woman, alone in a sunny room, a cup of tea on the table before her, untouched; a woman waiting. How could I describe all that waiting, all the negative space around their marriage? I began to wonder how they’d met, who they were, what might befall them, this woman and man. I gave them names, Clare and Henry. That was the beginning, but it took almost five years to write the book.

    As a graphic artist, did you ever consider presenting this story in another way? What led you to develop it into a novel?

    For half an hour I imagined it as a graphic novel. Not comics, but the sort of book I’d made before, etchings with minimal text, such as The Adventuress or The Three Incestuous Sisters. But I understood that a story about time travel might be more agile if I only used words, letting the reader imagine the time shifts and jolts without my trying to depict them visually. Images can resort to all kinds of odd tricks to represent time, but prose can do it more easily. I had always wanted to try to write a novel, I’d written many short stories but never anything long, so I decided this would be my experiment with novel writing.

    Did introducing the element of time travel present any writing challenges? What gave you the idea to make Henry’s ability to travel though time a genetic disorder? What “rules” did you establish for yourself?

    The most important rules for this book were:

    1. Everything happens once and nothing can be changed once it has happened.
    2. Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel. He cannot control it and it is not his fault.

    The first rule eliminates paradox and the butterfly effect, which are always a challenge for any writer of time travel stories. While they can yield some thought-provoking, marvelous stories (Back to the Future, Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder), I was more interested in the consequences of Henry and Clare’s actions and experiences. I didn’t want to let them undo and redo their lives endlessly. Using the concept of a block universe (also known as eternalism), in which all times exist at once, gave the novel a whiff of determinism and tragedy: Henry and Clare often know the future but they cannot alter it.

    The second rule puts Henry at the mercy of his body and absolves him of responsibility for abandoning Clare so often. The idea of time travel as a genetic disorder came to me because in 1997, when I began to work on the book, genetics was much in the news; the race to decode human DNA was on then. I wanted something random but with rules, and a disease seemed to fit that need.

    How did you track the chronology of Clare’s life, Henry’s life, and the progression of the book? Was it difficult to trace what Clare and Henry know, and how that affects their interactions, in any given moment?

    I made two time lines: one for Clare, which adhered to normal chronology, and one for Henry and all his time-jumping, which also tracked what the reader knows and what the characters know in any scene. The book took me four and a half years to write, so there was time to consider continuity and to carefully build the structures of the whole novel.

    Did you relate more to Henry or Clare? What was it like writing from both points of view?

    It was very liberating to be able to hop back and forth and to offer the reader both sides of their story. I wanted to show a marriage from a cubist perspective, all vantage points in all time frames.

    I identify with them both: Clare because she is an artist and a woman, Henry because I had given him my own voice, his voice is my natural one and his tastes and worldview are often mine.

    Chicago is shown in great detail in the book. What made you choose it for the setting?

    Chicago is my home and it is strangely underrepresented in literature. So I felt that it was mine for the taking, and I had great joy including the places I love in the story. There has been an unintended side effect: quite a lot of people have told me that they read TTW, decided to visit Chicago, and roamed around locating the places mentioned in the book. Some of these places have vanished in the years since TTW was published. Bookman’s Alley closed last Halloween, Don’s Coffee Club was gone even as I was writing the book. But you can still buy records at Vintage Vinyl and Opart is still the best Thai restaurant in Chicago. And of course the Newberry Library is still going strong.

    There are so many literary allusions throughout, and Henry is a librarian at the Newberry. Do you share your characters’ love of books?

    Oh yes. Yes. It’s gotten a little out of control, my book obsession. I trained as a book conservator, I bind books, I collect books, my house has so many books in it now that I am a little worried about its structural integrity.

    On page 280, you write: “The compelling thing about making art— or making anything, I suppose—is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there, a thing, a substance in a world of substances.” Clare struggles with, but also lives for, her art. Do you have similar struggles and triumphs with your creative endeavors?

    I tried to make Clare a different sort of artist than I am. She is interested in the natural world and in natural materials, she has a gift for sculpture and scale that I don’t have, she is making art about bodies and physicality that has a certain grandeur. My own art is odd, small-scaled, flat, narrative, and often autobiographical. My themes are love and death, sex and loss, the strangeness, the fleeting nature of it all. Clare might find my work a bit gloomy. But I did give her real studio practices, she works the way I would if I was making her art.

    Clare is balancing her domestic life with her art life, something that I’ve not had to worry about so much as I am single. I think I have an easier time in the studio than Clare does. She has more distractions.

    Clare says, “Everything seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence?” The time Clare and Henry are forced to spend apart certainly makes their relationship more intense. What appealed to you about such a complicated romance?

    This intensity of absence seemed implicit in the idea of a time traveler’s wife, someone who had to live with uncertainty and worry until the time traveler returned safe and sound, again and again. To me there is something appealing about spending time apart and then coming together with tales to tell. But of course in the case of Henry and Clare, the beguiling thing that brings them together is also the malevolent thing that wrecks them.

    Have you imagined what might happen to Alba outside the realm of The Time Traveler’s Wife?

    I had always resisted thinking about Alba’s life beyond the confines of the book, because I was working on another novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. Recently, I wanted to write something extra for a new edition of TTW, and I wrote a small scene in which Alba and Clare visit a house that has secretly belonged to Alba since before she was born. And that was enough to get me curious. So I’ve been working on another book, to find out what happens to Alba.

Explore

CONNECT WITH US

Get a FREE eBook
when you join our mailing list!