I was lonely, and the internet was broken, so I started reading Audrey Niffengger's The Time Traveler's Wife. I don't think this was a fantastic choice for warding off the blues, though....between this and Never Date A Writer I don't know that relationships are worth it or if they're the only thing that's worth it. I need a perspective not-relationship novel.
I love stories about time travel. I'm writing one, after all. And the time travel in this was well-executed...the problem of course is that time travel isn't real and doesn't work, so you have to walk a fine line between the mechanics and the story, and this toes that line well. While technology can be explained by a few sentences of technobabble, time travel affects causality and thus affects the flow of your plot. You can really write yourself into a corner in a hurry. The interesting thing is that The Time Traveler's Wife is written into a corner for an entire book. Henry, the main character, has no choice but to go through these experiences--he's caught in a corner. These are scenes I'd hate writing, but she does them well.
The plot is very well done--time travel is tricky, and she has same scenes reseen from different points of view, by different characters or sometimes the same character at different ages. The situation is profound, moving, the imagery lovely. I cried at the end. He died quoting Andrew Marvell, what do you expect? "Had we but world enough, and time--" ahhh.
But this book didn't quite satisfy me. It did, in some ways: the plot was lovely, well-thought out, the writing was simple, clear, precise, and lovely. What bothered me were the characters. And I didn't really know why until a patron interrupted me, while I was reading this today, to check out Twilight. And then I sat there for a moment and thought about it.
Because it's the same story. Bella and Clare are both pretty, feminine, have long hair, fall in love young and say with that man for life, don't do very much on their own. They both want a child, both have a daughter, both have husbands that are more interesting than they are, both their lives totally revolve around the person they love. The conflict in each depends on the defect of the other person that they love: vampire, time traveler. The intellectualism is better done here, obviously, and the plot is MUCH better written---but the characters remain the same mold. The perfect family save for one thing. A woman whose life depends on her significant other. When Edward/Henry leaves, Bella/Clare sits around and doesn't eat, stares into space, turns into emotionless zombies, stays in bed all day and feel awful. Only Jacob/Gomez is there to distract her but the depth of feeling is friendship and not love.
And this story is much better, don't get me wrong. But the characters irk me. Henry I love. A gaunt, tall, thin, dark, punk-lovin, alcoholic, sort of authentic version of the Arsonist. But he's all fuzzy around the edges. And that's all right--if that's a product of time travel, because he is mostly telling his own story and he feels fuzzy around the edges, then it's great characterization. But Clare is supposed to be his anchor, to hold him down, right? And all I know about her is that she has long red hair. Blue eyes, or maybe green. Part of this is the nature of the characters--from six to forty-three in the course of one book--but some of it is just general characterization. She does physical descriptions of characters well: when you're doing descriptions you stick to main traits that are easily identifiable, and let characters be memorable based on personality. But Clare needs to be solid. She needs to be what is holding him here, and she needs to be firmly fixed in the reader's mind as a solid point, and she's not. They're like twin stars in a solar system: they hold each other in place, and when one is missing the other sort of drifts away. I want them to be more solid, especially Clare. Even if she is the type of woman who spends her whole life waiting on a man, and who ahs a man at the center of her universe...well, maybe that's why she's not a very solid character, if she lets someone else be that much a part of her. But I want to know that, I want details of that, I want Clare to be more than she is. All of their friends, even Charisse and Gomez, feel flat and placeholders, not real and solid and fleshed-out: she's not good at doing little details that make characters really come alive. and for all of Alba's build-up she doesn't have much: part of that is her age, I know, you're not solid when you're that young. But you can have children who are more than a placeholder: look at Pearl, if you want to look at children that symbolize things.
Maybe these character types--interesting male, female who is dependent on him and whose life is mostly him--are more prevalent in literature than I think or realize. But I don't think it has to be this way, and I know it's not. Look at Jane Eyre, for crying out loud. She realized this very thing and had to say no, had to leave it so that this wouldn't be the case. She was solid first, and then she was solid again after he was gone. As a disconnected woman, I have to believe that there is more to life and literature than this: waiting on a man.
So thank you, Audrey Niffenegger--I love your plot, and I love your story, and I love your French poets and your prose. But your characters need to stand on their own.