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An uneven chronicle of a couple over time

("The Time Traveler's Wife,"; By Audrey Niffenegger; MacAdam/Cage, 518 pp.; $25.)

Charting a life path is hard for everyone, but especially so for hero Henry DeTamble, the victim of a genetic disorder that causes him to shuttle back and forth in time. During bouts of stress, Henry might be whisked away and find himself naked and nauseated on a desolate street corner in some unknown time and place. Or he may turn up face to face with himself at age 15; on one excursion, Henry, age 36, meets his future wife, Clare, age 6, and becomes her regular visitor, pal, and teacher. Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel, "The Time Traveler's Wife," at turns playful, wearisome, and moving, chronicles the efforts of Henry, a librarian, and Clare, an artist, to build a stable life together despite the unending threat of separation and loss.

The story is told as a series of diary entries alternating between Henry and Clare and jumping around in time, creating a collage-like effect. It is chock-full of incident and packed with jarring contrasts; the everyday and the fantastic, the comic and the tragic bump up abruptly, one against the other. Reading the characters' accounts of the normal rites of passage -- dating, friendships, family visits, engagement, planning their wedding -- is like flipping through a photo album; the activities recounted are not remarkable, but we feel privy to someone's intimate, precious memories.

Juxtaposed with these episodes are Henry's sudden disappearances and his gritty descriptions of his derelict life as a time traveler, scrounging for clothing and food, stealing and fighting, getting into scrapes with the police. We learn as well about the death of Henry's mother in a car crash, his unwitting escape of the accident through time travel, and his father's retreat into alcohol.

Scarred by his past and the hardships of time travel, Henry is more akin in spirit to Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," longing for home and security, than to H. G. Wells's knowledge-seeking time traveler in "The Time Machine." At its most touching, the novel is a hymn to the pleasures of the ordinary and tangible, the sensuousness of the here and now. It is replete with charming, spontaneous images of family life: Henry's parents, both musicians, playing lullabies for him on his fifth birthday; Clare making a sculpture for Henry.

Yet this lengthy novel is not all it could have been; at times, Niffenegger seems to be working out an idea rather than shaping a story. Apart from their time-travel difficulties, Henry and Clare are not particularly compelling. They and their friends tend to be annoyingly clever in the manner of situation comedy characters. We learn of the highs and lows the couple confronts over the years but less about how they come to terms with their experiences. How does Henry make sense of the disparate parts of himself -- family man and outlaw? What self-knowledge arises from holding conversations with yourself as a child or from observing yourself and your parents long ago? Clare is radiant, loving, beautiful. We learn little about her aspirations or challenges as an artist. Like her art, her love for Henry is a given, not something to be reckoned with as she grows up and reaches adulthood.

These weaknesses are repaired, belatedly, with the novel's conclusion. The mood darkens, and time travel becomes a means for representing arbitrariness, transience, plain bad luck. As Henry's travels become more dangerous, the couple's life together becomes ever more precarious, and they react with a believable mixture of fear, sadness, and bravery. The recounting of their struggle to sustain their bond, no matter what, is the high point of book.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" can be an exasperating read, but as a love story it has its appeal: Refreshingly, the novel portrays long-term commitment as something lively and exuberant rather than dutiful and staid, evoking both the comforts it brings us and the tribulations we learn to live with.

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