I was reluctant to re-read this because it's such a powerful book emotionally. The way Niffennegger's time travel works -- you go naked and can't even take dental fillings with you -- strikes me as utterly horrific. (As someone with a mouth full of fillings and crowns, I can't imagine being that sort of time traveler.) Add to that what Henry encounters on his travels (the beatings, the eventual frostbite and the fatal shot) place this book firmly in the horror genre for me.
Yet it's also beautiful and whimsical in parts. I like Henry's description of Ingrid's dancing: "She dances seriously, like lives are hanging in the balance, like precision dancing can save the starving children in India." [p. 421] Or Charisse explaining why she changed her career path: "'I met Gomez and realized that nobody ever overthrew the bourgeois capitalist misogynist corporate operating system by perming its hair.'" [oops! lost the page number] Niffennegger makes me smile as often as she makes me want to cry.
Reading it a second time, I see some things I missed the first time. Specifically, the parallelism between parental death and time-traveling child. Alba is roughly the same age Henry was when the opposite-sex parent is killed in a dramatic fashion. This becomes for many years (actually until he meets Clare) the defining moment of Henry's life. His father just crumpled inward and stopped living, stopping being present for his child. Both children bear a remarkable resemblance to the dead parent, which makes it harder for the surviving parent. Yet Clare, who is so tempted to succumb to a similar path as her father-in-law, doesn't, and her child thrives and is able to achieve much greater control over her ability than her father ever did.
Another thing was that Henry's secret wasn't that big a secret. His father must have known because Kimy did. Ingrid has figured it out, as she has figured out who the little girl she and youthful Henry see on their dates is. These were people Henry didn't tell, who guessed. Then there's Clare and Gomez and Charisse and his co-workers.
One problem I have with the book is that I don't really like a lot of the characters. szandara has raised the question of morality in what Henry does. I didn't respond to that because I wanted to address that here. I can see the necessity of much of what he does -- he's never going to live to be old enough to meet grown-up Clare if he doesn't get some pretty dire survival skills. So I can understand the lock-picking and fighting and theft. His violence goes over the top, but he's pretty stressed out by all of this so it's understandable. Understandable, but not terribly likeable. I didn't really like Henry.
I also didn't like Gomez. What kind of guy repeatedly hits on his girlfriend's/wife's best friend? It's clear to him that Clare is in love with someone else and she's not poly, so he should have just backed off. It made me feel very sorry for Charisse, who had three kids with this guy, knowing all along that he would rather be with her best friend. What kind of marriage is that?
I was also struck on this reading by the two families. Both Henry and Clare had miserable childhoods in their own way. Henry begins as the only and greatly-loved child of a famous opera star and her violinist husband. With her death, the love and the fame both withered, leaving Henry miserable. Clare, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, seems to have a perfect life, but that's just an appearance. She has a rocky relationship with both her parents and her older brother. Her beautiful mother is unstable, not able to give Clare the constant, unconditional love she so desperately needs.
For Clare is all about love. However I felt about the other characters, I always loved Clare (and Alicia, but this is Clare's story). Her entire life has been defined by this strange man she first saw when she was six. We're not told when she realized she loved him, but from the Ouija board she plays with her friends when she's 11, she knows she's going to marry him. And when she's 13, she realizes, at least on some level, that he is going to die by the hands of her father and brother.
But back to love: this is Clare's true art. When she first meets her father-in-law, she says, "'But don't you think, ..., that it's better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?'" [p. 231] That, to me, sums up Clare's essence. I find her incredibly brave. I could not live her life. Reading this book, I kept wanting to run to my husband to make sure he was still there and hug him.
Between all the quirks and the horror, this is ultimately a novel about love. In Henry's letter to Clare, the one she reads after his death, he writes, "Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust." [p. 503]
Excuse me, I need to go find my husband again.