It's been a long time since I've stayed up late into the night, reading just another chapter ... and then another ... and so what if it's 3 a.m., and tears are streaming down my cheeks, and all that's left to read are the acknowledgements at the end and I do, because I'm as unwilling to let these characters go as they are to let each other go.
The themes of this novel are as complex as you want to make them: freewill versus determinism; genetic abnormalities, relativity and evolutionary theory; memories, love, death, loss and our relationship to time. But aside from the themes that lend the story depth, this novel is first and foremost a powerful love story.
The science fiction premise of time travelling is dramatic and effective to keep the story moving along (albeit in a disconcertingly non-linear--and occasionally confusing--fashion) and to illuminate the themes. I found myself interested in how the conceit was working and trying to sort out the internal logic of both the time travel and of Henry's chromosomal disability. But that quickly took second fiddle (!) to the main story arc. (Glossing over the inconsistencies in the logic of Henry's time travel is important to preserve the 'believability' of the rest of the story. Niffenegger has a less-than-adequate mastery of the time travel conceit. She would do well to study Roddenberry's Star Trek: The Next Generation
time-space continuum rift narratives if she chooses to continue in a sci-fi vein for her second novel).
Regardless, time travelling serves primarily here as a device to illustrate how people, and in particular Clare and Henry, find each other and how their individual stories and the events of their lives become interwoven into an "us" that is both inevitable and random.
If we reject the science fiction premise as poorly executed or too science fiction-ey to be believable--especially as nested within this story that is otherwise so very 'normal'--we can still look on the bouncing around through time and space as being an apt analogy for memory, and we can all relate to that. We reminisce about the happy times, reliving them again and again to sustain us in times of difficulty. We ruminate about past hurts and traumas, unable to let them go. Both the good and the bad memories shape us into the people we are. Henry is frustrated by knowing what is going to happen but is unable, because he didn't the first time around, to change the outcome. Often, we wish we could go back in time and change things, recognizing all the while that--whether for good or for ill--every experience we've had has made us into who we are.
Niffenegger is clever in showing us how our place in time--the music we listen to, the books we read, the clothes we wear--do more than just define us at any given age: they carry forward into the people we become. Niffenberger plays with the theme of time travel in myriad ways, some subtle and some ironic, but all with the intention of looking at time, place, space and memory from every possible angle. As Clare looks down at the dance floor at the Violent Femmes'
concert, she notes the audience is in their teens, 20s, 30s and "even some older." Henry and his younger self travel backwards in time from the 19th, to the 18th, to the 17th Centuries as they stroll through successive rooms in the museum. On a trip from Chicago to Michigan, Clare and Henry remark on how strange it is to skip ahead an hour moving from Central to Eastern timezone.
These images reinforce the much larger question of how we are shaped by the times in which we live. Henry's affinity for punk music gives him a certain identity in his 20s, but is no less important at defining him in his late-30s. The opportunity Henry has to re-experience events at different ages and stages, as a child, then as a young adult, then in middle-age, give him an enviable omniscience. The implication is that Henry gains a perspective and wisdom that we lesser-evolved lifeforms never have: he occupies some realm between human and angel. (Clare's fascination for angels and birds; and her lapsed Catholicism--none of which are overtly explored in any heavy-handed way--resonate when played off of the spiritual connotations of Henry's uniqueness).
But the bottom line, the consistent theme and the anchor point for the story is the love between these two characters. Henry is a planet revolving around Clare, his sun. She gives his life shape, direction and purpose. And the sun is nothing without having something to shine upon: Clare needs Henry as much as he needs her. Thankfully, the story doesn't degenerate into some saccharine cliché -- although I now hear it is being made into a movie starring Rachel McAdams, and if anyone can make a rich, complex and powerful love story into a trite chick-flick, it would be her.