Publisher: Vintage Future Classics (Random House)
Pages: 519 (Paperback)
This is the extraordinary Love Story of Clare and Henry, who met when Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. Impossible but true, because Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future. In the face of this force they can neither prevent nor control, Henry and Clare’s struggle to lead normal lives is both intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.
Not to mention ‘mind-numbingly tedious’.
I really wanted to like this book, after all the reviews I expected to like this book. I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to give it 5 stars – I’m not a romance kinda girl, but I loved the idea of the story and, based on what I’d heard, expected it to earn a solid 4 stars. As you can see that didn’t happen. I don’t actually hate – or even actively dislike – this book. I can even see why some people love it, but to me it just read as a very interesting idea ruined by mediocre execution. It’s not ‘bad’, there are glimmers of ‘good’ but for the most part it’s simply so ok it’s average. And when a book is over 500 pages long it really needs to be more than ‘ok’.
Why did I continue reading then? Well firstly, although I got very frustrated at points and my notebook is full of rude comments scribbled down in the heat of the moment, it’s got enough nice ideas buried beneath the nauseating romance that I wanted to see it through. Despite being at least a couple of hundred pages too long it’s not a difficult or slow read, I had no other books with me on the train most days, and – most importantly – it’s for my new book group. In some ways this means I was bound to be more critical of this book – I was analysing it more than normal as I read it because I wanted to have something to say about it – but this wouldn’t be a book I would actively enjoy even if I wasn’t taking notes.
The biggest problem for me – or one of the biggest problems, there were a lot – was the characters themselves. Now Amazon is full of five-star reviews praising the ‘believable characters’ and ‘beautiful love story’. I found both entirely unconvincing. The story is told through both Henry and Clare’s viewpoints – but their narrative voices are so similar to each other I often got confused as to who was narrating. Maybe this was done deliberately to emphasise how perfect they are for each other – they both think in the same way – but it came off as ‘can’t write more than one character’. I don’t want to read about someone falling for a male/female version of themselves – actually that’s a lie, I would totally read that book if it explored all the troubling themes and questions behind that concept. This book doesn’t. Oh it raises some questions all right, but the way the characters dismiss them so easily it seems the narrative is only playing lip service to them so that readers will stop asking them themselves.
Aside from the almost identical narrative voice Clare is pretty much your standard romance heroine. She is beautiful with long red hair and pale skin, she’s also an artist – but not a normal one! she does quirky sculptures in paper! She speaks French and German, loves poetry, has a dreadful family – apart from the one little sister and the house servants – who don’t understand her ‘free spirit’, giving her all sorts of mummy issues, but her family’s also really rich so she can afford to spend her time doing nothing. She’s incredible at sex, even just after losing her virginity, but doesn’t sleep around because she’s waiting for ‘the one’ (in her case I suppose at least she knows he’s coming) and is stated to be pretty much the only girl who’s ever been able to keep up with Henry sexually. Now I don’t read a lot of Romance novels (though I do read Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for amusement) but even to someone like me Clare seemed a total cliché storm. By about 200 pages in I had stopped writing ‘Clare’ in my notepad and started to refer to her as ‘Special Snowflake’. This is not a good sign. 500+ pages I still couldn’t find any more depth to her than those few traits outlined in this paragraph. Oh wait, I forgot that she loves Henry to the point of self-destruction and is obsessed with trying to have his baby. Thing is I can’t work out why.
Henry is slightly more fleshed out though he also has an obligatory Mary-Sue background – his parents were international standard musicians and his mum was a really famous singer before she died horribly when he was small and his family life disintegrated so he grew up all lonely. So naturally he grows up into a troubled, oversexed, violent man who treats women like rubbish (though of course he’s only violent towards men who have said something rude – because that’s fine and not at all disproportionate). Also he time travels. We are told that this leads to lots of odd and dangerous situations because he could turn up naked (only his body can travel, no clothes or objects) anywhere at any time. Trouble is that for the most part the only time travel we see is him interacting with Clare at different points in each others lives so ‘time travel is dangerous, I have to be super fit so I can run away because my life often depends on it’ just comes off as an informed ability and an excuse for him to have an attractive athletic body. Personally I would prefer to see these time travel incidents than the endless ‘Oh but Henry, when can we have sex? Surely you want to have sex with me – I’m such a pretty sixteen year old that all the other men I meet want to but I’m waiting for you‘ ‘I can’t tell you the future – nah I totally can, we’re going to get married and have sex all the time then, but you have to wait’ scenes (Ok I totally paraphrased that but it’s not as inaccurate as one would hope).
And that’s my main problem. Yes I know it is a romance, I expected the romance to be the main focus, but not to the detriment of all the interesting ideas that could have been explored. And when even the romance aspect goes out of the way to dismiss the questions raised about it by the premise of the book – a man travelling back in time to meet his wife when she was a child – it’s pretty disappointing. I wanted more debate about the morality of Henry essentially grooming his future wife. Yes we get a ‘once somthing’s been done its done and I can’t change it even if I try’, so essentially Henry has no choice but to spend time with child-Clare, ok I can buy that – time travel is a funny thing that works different ways in different stories, that’s cool – they’re doomed to fall in love because it’s already happened. But what’s bothersome is that he never seems to feel guilty or uncomfortable about how he’s essentially influenceing Clare even if he can’t change it. He never seems to consider that a thirty year old man having this sort of relationship (and by that I mean a close friendship it only gets truly icky once she’s about 15) with a pre-teen child without their parents knowledge is inappropriate. You get the impression that if he had a choice he would still go back in time to spend her childhood with her so the issue of how these visits effect Clare is ignored. Even from her point of view she doesn’t look back on it later with any feeling other than ‘it was so romantic’. Everyone just accepts ‘it has to happen, it’s already happened’ and nobody seems to think Clare deserves more agency than that even if she can’t have it.
Then when Clare meets Henry for his first time he’s not the man from the future she fell in love with – he’s younger, more angry, and generally nastier (we are told because actually he doesn’t seem any different by the end either – aside from a haircut). This is a really interesting idea, but what we get then is about one scene of Clare questioning her feelings before his future self comes and tells her to stick with him because even though he’s a horrible person now it’s his relationship with her that will change him into someone she could actually love. Erm…ok, cool. He’s a nasty little shit who cheats on all the women he’s been with and treats them terribly but your love will change him into someone you’re actually attracted to. That’s not a healthy attitude to start a relationship with! Get out of there Clare! You may be a blank generic romance heroine but nobody deserves that! But of course it’s just accepted and never discussed again. It’s just frustrating; so many interesting possibilities and debates to be had and all of them overlooked in favour of ‘but our love is special!’ type railroading.
And then the character inconsistancies…Oh Henry says he feels bad about telling people their future but nothing in his actions reflects that at all. He pauses for a bit before telling child-Clare she’s his wife, but after she knows he doesn’t find anything troubling in kissing teenage-Clare. In fact Henry tells a lot of people things about their future when he thinks it gives him an advantage over them, often hugely horrible and mean-spirited things too (you’ve annoyed me so I’m going to tell you all about how your girlfriend commits suicide, I want you to help me so to make you believe I’m a time traveller here are the details of your future son’s birth certificate – I know you were expecting a healthy girl but that’s not what you’re getting!). Then of course there’s his abuse of future knowledge of the stock exchange and other such money spinning methods to ensure everyone he likes lives comfortably. This gets a momentary ‘is this moral?’ before Clare shrugs it off and goes ‘who cares? Money! I can buy a studio to make my cliché art in!’ and ‘this shows how much Henry loves me because he swore he would never use his powers for this’. No, no it doesn’t, Clare because, despite him saying that, we’ve actually already see him giving both Kimmy and Gomez advice on which companies to invest in. This is the sort of thing he does all the time and something he continues to do after they’ve already made enough money from it that neither of them ever need work again.
Ok…putting two dimensional characters and ‘telling, not showing’ aside this book is simply too long. I said before that I liked the concept, I would probably have loved this as a short story where less developed characters are more forgivable and messages tend to be more open-ended. It could have made a lovely, thoughtful, little novella even. But at 519 pages it just drags, especially when there is no real plot but ‘boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy is time traveller, watch their relationship progress’. Once you’ve accepted Henry can time travel it’s actually a very mundane book describing very boring mundane relationship scenes. Quotes to illustrate:
There is a tall stool by the table, and I sit on it.
Clare hands Alicia a cue. Alicia chalks it and then breaks, sharply. Two stripes fall into corner pockets. Alicia sinks two more before missing, just barely, a combo bank shot. “Uh-oh” says Clare. “I’m in trouble.” Clare drops an easy solid, the 2 ball, which was poised on the edge of a corner pocket. On her next shot she sends the cue ball into the hole after the 3, and Alicia fishes out both balls and lines up her shot. She runs the stripes without further ado. “Eight ball, side pocket,” Alicia calls and that is that.
I turn to Alicia. “Let the games begin.” Clare racks again. Alicia gets the break. The whiskey has coated all my synapses, and everything is sharp and clear. The balls explode like fireworks and blossom into a new pattern. The 13 teeters on the edge of a corner and then falls. “Stripes again,” Alicia says. She sinks the 15, the 12, and the 9 before a bad leave forces her to try an unmakable two-rail shot.
Clare is standing just at the edge of the light, so that her face is in shadow but her body floats out of the blackness, her arms folded across her chest. I turn my attention to the table. It’s been a while. I sink the 2, 3, and 6 easily, and then look for something else to work with. The 1 is smack in front of the corner pocket at the opposite side of the table, and I send the cue ball into the 7 which drops the 1. I send the 4 into a side pocket with a bank shot and get the 5 in the back corner with a lucky carom. It’s just slop but Alicia whistles anyway. The 7 goes down without mishap. “Eight in the corner,” I indicate with my cue, and in it goes. A sigh escapes around the table.
“Oh, that was beautiful,” says Alicia. “Do it again.” Clare is smiling in the dark.
I can’t be the only one who finds scenes like this excruciating can I? This went on for about 5 pages and occurs almost 200 pages in. The only new thing it tells me is yet another think Henry is great at. It has no other purpose but to bring back memories of standing round a pool table every friday in my local pub, bored off my arse, while my ex-boyfriend and male friends tried to impress each other with their cue skills. Yawn yawn yawn. A good editor could probably have cut this book down a good 200 pages at least and it would have benefited enormously for it.
It might also have fixed the sudden change in tone a bit better. The shift between the ‘light and fluffy’ first half and the ‘bleak and miserable’ second half is just a bit too heavy-handed for my liking. There were hints and heavy foreshadowing that it was all going to go downhill of course and I’d heard the ‘tearjerker’ reviews, but the sheer levels of misery piled upon misery towards the end only induced a laugh and an eyeroll from me. That probably makes me a heartless person but I kinda knew that already. It was just such a cynical, manipulated, play for emotions I was left making bets with myself in my notebook about what heartwrenching tragedy would occur to who next. I’m going to try not to spoiler key events (which all happen in the second half) so will just say that the half/half structure could have worked – if the first half hadn’t dragged on so long and not developed the characters enough that I was already bored of them and wanted them gone before the ridiculous levels of angst even started piling up. And their reactions to their problems often made me dislike them more too (adoption is ‘only pretending’ gee, thanks. I’ll go tell all the people I know with adopted kids that they’re not ‘real’ parents, should I?).
Now I’ve been really quite negative here, I honestly didn’t mean to be so horrible. I don’t hate this book, I was just really disappointed with it, given all the potential there for a truly great story. However, I can appreciate that it’s just not my sort of thing and that what doesn’t work for me can (and evidently does) work for a lot of other people. I’m not the target audience, I can accept that, which is why I added an extra half star to what I really think was, for me, a two-star read.
So although I didn’t enjoy this book I would actually recommend it – but only to people who I know to be fans of chick lit or romance. Maybe people who liked Memoirs of a Geisha (another widely praised book my female friends loved but I just couldn’t get on with).