Once upon many times, there was a librarian named Henry. At the age of 5, Henry developed Chrono Displacement Disorder. When under stress, he can disappear and reappear at any time, mostly within his lifetime. He can't ever change anything in the past and he knows something very bad happens to him in his forties. He's had to learn how to fight, pick locks, and steal for every time he's thrown somewhere, as he is basically helpless, unarmed, and naked wherever he arrives (anything that isn't part of him stays behind—he had to have a tooth pulled just because he kept losing the filling). Sometimes he ends up getting to live through the same traumatic situations in his life over and over and over and over again.Those are the disadvantages.The advantage is that during his 30s, Henry time-traveled into the past of his wife, Clare, from ages 6 to 18. She grew to love him during these trips. And so, by the time they actually meet in real time when he's 28 and she's 20, she has known him all her life and knows that she ends up marrying him. Meanwhile, Henry is initially surprised and confused, having never met her before, but they soon fall in love and begin a shaky relationship. Eventually they try to have a child, which makes things even more complicated.A very intelligent science fiction novel by Audrey Niffenegger. (There's also The Film of the Book, which received more mixed reviews.) Like the best science fiction, it explores all the complexities of its fantastic premise and its effects on otherwise perfectly ordinary people — and you will not find it in the science fiction section of your library. (More often than not, it'll be stuck in general fiction — or in the Romance section, effectively trading one Genre Ghetto for another.) It is highly recommended but it comes with a seriousTear Jerker warning.The book has gone on to influence many Science Fiction authors, most notably Steven Moffat, who is now the lead writer of Doctor Who.
This novel provides examples of:
Adaptation Dye-Job: In the book, Clare's hair is described as red-gold, through most of her life. In the film, Clare as a young girl has red-gold hair, but Clare as an adult (played by Rachel McAdams) has reddish-brown hair. Clare as a teenager (also McAdams) is halfway between the two.
Anachronic Order: The story jumps around in time, always making a note of the ages of Henry and Clare in that scene, and on some occasions the ages of more than one Henry. In fact, the person who teaches him to pick locks and steal wallets is himself from the future.
Author Appeal: The author most definitely wants to make it very clear step by step in vivid detail how Clare creates some of her art work.
Badass Bookworm: Don't call Henry a fag and try to beat him up based on the ridiculous clothes he's forced to wear. He will end you. And whatever you do, for the love of god do NOT brutalize his future wife because she wouldn't put out. I don't care if it seems like a good idea at the time, JUST DON'T.
Beneficial Disease: One of the reasons Dr. Kendrick argues that Henry is the future of mankind is that he has the ultimate fight-or-flight response, as shown by his survival of the car crash that killed his mother: if Henry's in sudden danger, he can just time-travel away.
Doesn't really work out as well when he gets shot.
Beta Couple: Charisse and Gomez, although Gomez continues to harbor deep feelings for Clare decades after his one-night stand with her.
Bilingual Bonus: Every few pages. Trilingual, really: English, German, and French.
Blessed with Suck: Henry can time-travel - but he doesn't have any control over it. His ability targets the most memorable places, people, and events in his life - the traumatic ones even more so than the positive ones. For every time he gets to visit his wife as a teenager or his infant daughter as a ten-year-old, he has to watch his ex-girlfriend kill herself over him or see his mother die for the fiftieth time. And on top of all this, the story takes place in an Eternist universe . Basically, everything that has ever happened, good and bad, was supposed to happen the way it did, and Henry can't do a damn thing about it. It doesn't take him long to wonder if the universe is actively f*** ing with him.
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Despite going missing for days at a time and being caught naked in the stacks multiple times, Henry is allowed to keep his job at the library and his co-workers take bets as to the REAL reason for his odd behaviour.
But I Can't Be Pregnant!: Getting a vasectomy doesn't work when you're an inadvertent time traveler. Oh, the vasectomy worked fine, but if your wife gets it on with a pre-vasectomy version of you...
Can't Take Anything With You: This causes Henry a lot of hell every time he time travels. Whenever he arrives he has to steal clothes, which causes him a lot of trouble. He also had to remove some teeth as he kept on leaving behind the fillings.
Childhood Marriage Promise: Sort of. When Henry, already married to Clare, travels back in time to Clare's childhood, he tells the child version of her that they are already married in the future. (Well, her future.)
Disability Superpower: A Deconstructed Trope. Being a time traveler is a genetic disorder and is portrayed as a medical condition — a very strange one, but a medical condition nonetheless — and it is nothing but hell. Well, except for cheating and winning the lottery.
Double Standard: When she first brings Henry to meet her family after meeting him in the present, Clare chafes when her conservative Catholic father scolds her for having Henry in her room with the door locked, even though all they were doing was having a private conversation. Meanwhile, Clare's older brother Mark is sharing a room with his fiance Sharon. However, in the latter case, the parents reluctantly allow it because they are engaged to be married, and they know Sharon is already pregnant. Clare still bristles about the situation, even though Henry manages to slip into her room and have sex with her on three different occasions during the visit.
Ethnic Menial Labor: Nell, Clare's childhood nanny and cook, fits the "Mammy" stereotype to a T.
Everyone Is Christian At Christmas: Played with. Henry first meets Clare's parents during a stay at Clare's childhood home in Michigan over Christmas. There's a moment of tension when they realize (because his mother is a famous singer, and Clare's parents are fans aware of her Jewish heritage) that they have served Henry ham unthinkingly...which he has already eaten without a second thought. Henry explains that he's not observant, and never really cared to be.
Henry: Yes. I look like I've been spindled and mutilated.
Gratuitous Foreign Language: Niffenegger occasionally has Henry use the phrase "und so weiter", which means "and so on" in German. However, on at least one occasion she misspells it as "und so wiete", which means "and so [???]" (wiete isn't even a word in German).
Human Resources: In the book, Clare asks Henry if the rumor that his library has a rare book that was bound in human skin is true, and he says yes. This sets up things up for a great line later, when a fellow librarian tells Henry that his boss wants to see him, and that the (angry) boss "looks like he wants to rebind The Chronicles of Nawat Wuzeer Hyderabed."
I Hate Past Me: Played with. Henry gets annoyed with both past and future versions of himself when they complicate his life.
In the Blood: Henry and Clare's daughter also has fits of chrono-displacement, but unlike her father, she can exert a degree of control over them.
I Will Wait for You: Clare. All the time. There isn't much else she can do, under the circumstances.
Lighter and Softer: The film compared to the novel. Henry keeps his feet and Gomez isn't in love with Clare.
May-December Romance: A different version from the usual, with all the complexities of the time travel involved. Clare figures out early on who Henry is going to be in her life, and Henry already knows that they get married in the future. They do wait until her 18th birthday for Their First Time, and it's her first time with him and not vice versa for two more years.
Missing Mom: Henry's mom's tragic death when he was six. Guess what traumatic event he gets to visit the most often?
Mistaken for Gay: Henry gets attacked when seen walking in a bad alleyway in feminine clothes while travelling through time.
My Future Self and Me: Henry hangs out with future versions of himself a few times. Sometimes they share his apartment, sometimes they commit crimes to train the younger version, sometimes they sexually experiment. All in the glamorous life of a time-traveler.
My Own Private "I Do": For an unusual reason — Clare and Henry have a civil ceremony after the big wedding because Henry completely missed the wedding, even though no one noticed because his future self showed up to take his place.
Naked on Revival: A variant involving time travel rather than death. But even more unpleasant.
Never Win the Lottery: A Subverted Trope: This is the one thing Henry can really exploit in his situation. And he does, for Clare's sake. Yet he continues to hold down a job to the best of his ability and live as normally as possible.
Newspaper Dating / What Year Is This?: Henry's preferred method of ascertaining the time he's currently in is to ask someone else, but he'll usually refrain from asking complete strangers, and ask his friends (or other selves) what the date is instead. We do see one occasion where he glances across a newspaper and realizes where he is, and what the date is, and therefore what's needed of him at that moment: He sees that he's in South Haven, on the date of his wedding, which means he needs to hurry to the wedding to take the place of the younger Henry that's about to disappear before the ceremony.
On one occasion, Henry bumps into Gomez unexpectedly, and asks Gomez the time. (Henry doesn't wear a watch because it would just get left behind if he disappears.) Gomez tells him, and adds the date and year, to which Henry thanks him, but since he's not traveling at the moment, he knows the date already.
Non Linear Storytelling: There's a complicated pattern, as the book starts when Henry and Clare meet and progresses roughly linear from there, but there's also random travels of Henry's. The meetings of Henry and Clare as a child are in a complicated pattern, with each time either in Clare's order of encounter of Henry's.
Or Was It a Dream?: Henry's first time-traveling experience happened in the middle of the night (good thing his older self was there to meet him) and he assumed he was having a weird dream. And it was pretty much the last time he had a fun experience.
Post 9-11 Terrorism Story: Niffenegger had almost completed the book when the towers fell and ended up adding a scene to further illustrate the limits of Henry's power (and his helpless acceptance of those limits).
Power Degeneration: Henry's condition seems to worsen as he ages, experiencing more violent fits when he time-travels. He also time travels further from the present as he ages, starting from only managing a few days back and forth, to managing to travel back to the 1900s.
Power Incontinence: Henry has no control whatsoever over his time-traveling, and it often happens at highly inconvenient times. Some things tend to trigger his episodes, such as flashing lights, television, stress and alcohol, which is appropriate as his condition is compared to epilepsy several times.
Power Nullifier: Henry experiments with various drugs to stop himself from time-travelling. In one trial, using a formula for a medication that had not been invented yet but he copied from the future, Henry almost kills himself with a very bad reaction.
Power Perversion Potential: Discussed and played straight. Kimy once jokes that Clare could have a threesome with two Henrys, and Henry sexually experiments with versions of himself from the past/future till he's 14.
Psycho Lesbian: Celia, though she's not so much a psycho as a manipulative asshole. She's more than willing to "forget" important details in a story for the sake of hurting Henry (see What the Hell, Hero? below), or to drag a newly-engaged Clare to a lesbian bar to meet Ingrid, just to rub it in Ingrid's face that Henry has moved on without her.
Puberty Superpower: Averted. Henry and Alba develop their power naturally, but start before they're 10.
Retroactive Precognition: Used by Henry to prove he's telling the truth about time-traveling, or for profit. In addition, this is how older Henry traveling in the past knows that he will eventually convince some people (like Gomez, Charisse, and Dr. Kendrick) that he really can time travel: because they're actively helping him in his present.
Retroactive Preparation: This, on the other hand, is how Henry had to convince Dr. Kendrick that he's actually time traveling, and not delusional. Future-Henry looks up the birth certificate of Kendrick's son after he's born, then on one of his jaunts into Clare's past, he dictates the contents of the certificate to Clare as a young lady. Young Clare writes the information down, then seals it in an envelope, then waits until after she and Henry are married, holding onto it until they need it. When Henry finds Dr. Kendrick, his wife is a few months away from giving birth. Henry gives him the envelope, and tells him to open it once the child is born. Of course, the information correctly predicts that he's having a son rather than a daughter, and that his son has Down's syndrome, despite the genetic test report stating he was having a daughter with no health issues. Even with all of that, and Henry explaining how he got the information, Kendrick still refuses to believe Henry until he sees Henry vanish before his own eyes, leaving his clothes behind.
Sarcastic Confession: Clare pulls this when Alicia tells her that she could swear she saw a naked 40-year-old Henry in her house once.
Alicia: Maybe it was, you know, astral projection or something.
Clare: Time travel.
Alicia: Oh yeah, right. God, how bizarre.
Screw Yourself: Teenage Henry has a different definition of self-loving. When his dad walked in on him and... erm... him, Henry decided to just stick to more traditional outlets.
Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Averted. Henry tries to save his mother from a car accident, and a girl he saw die. He fails, as he can't change the past.
Shaped Like Itself: In the movie Gomez does this when hes trying to explain to Clare about his condition.
He's a time traveler. You know.... cause he travels... through time.
Small Reference Pools: An Averted Trope. Can seem as if Niffenegger is referencing obscure works purely for her own amusement. (Even those who have little trouble keeping up with the characters' knowledge of art and poetry may still find the incessant quotations and art analysis annoying.)
Suicide Is Painless: Ingrid's not the most stable woman in the world, and it shows when it's revealed she's tried to kill herself four times. Fifth time's the charm, and a Henry from the future gets to travel back to witness it.
Switching P.O.V.: Between Henry and Clare, repeatedly. Surprisngly though, the POV doesn't switch to Alba at the end, which might have been the obvious thing to do but would have undercut the Downer Ending.
Henry: "If anything ever happens to my feet, you might as well shoot me."
Time Travel for Fun and Profit: Henry uses his condition for his own advantage at times, such as seeing concerts, winning the lottery and getting stock tips. He recommends to both Kimy and Gomez to invest in websites such as Google and Amazon, when Gomez doesn't even know what the internet is.
Alba also time-travels to see her grandmother sing in concert, as well as to see Henry.
Trauma Conga Line: Maybe we haven't mentioned this anywhere on the website, but lots of horrifying things happen to Henry.
Troubled, but Cute: Henry in his 20s certainly qualifies as 'troubled,' but after falling in love with a far more stable Henry in his 30s and 40s, Clare doesn't find it all that cute. She has to be told by a 33-year-old Henry to have patience with his younger self before she can fall in love with him in the present day.
Year Inside, Hour Outside: All the time travel he does is why Henry seems to age so fast. He's not sure how old he actually is but he figures it probably amounts to several years on top of his calendar age.
Year Outside, Hour Inside: Earlier in his life he wonders if he might actually be a few years younger than he should be. It's quite possible, as the stress of his life would age him.
You Can't Fight Fate: Played for all the angst it's worth. It's heavily implied that Henry is operating in an Eternist Universe and everything, good and bad, that has ever happened was supposed to happen that way and there's not a damn thing he can do about it. It should be noted, however, that the writing is so good that the angst is handled very well.
Addressed in the movie where in a confrontation with his dad about why he has not stopped his own mom from dying: he replies that he has tried, but he can never get there in time to make a difference.
You No Take Candle: Averted; Ms. Kim, or Kimy (Henry's surrogate mother) lives in Chicago's Koreatown. If not for that, it would be pretty hinky that her English hasn't gotten any better over the few decades of the story.
You Wouldn't Believe Me If I Told You: This is Henry's default position when it comes to explaining any strange behavior people observe from him, because of course the truth of Chrono Displacement Disorder is too far out to be accepted. On the few occasions co-workers have caught him naked in the library, he refuses to explain himself, because he won't lie, but he knows the truth won't be believed. Eventually they do learn the truth, when a naked future-Henry appears in an area that no one can get in or out without the use of welding equipment. Proving Henry right, the boss refuses to believe future-Henry's explanation about time travel... until a fully-clothed present-Henry appears after learning of the situation when he shows up for work.