Disclaimer: I am not a huge fan of romances. I do not believe in soulmates, which is a heavy theme in this novel.
When I do read or watch a romance, I expect for the central conflict of the piece to be directly related to the romance. In other words, the question that usually has to be answered is "Will this couple stay (get) together?" Think of all the great romances, and you will see this is the central question of most them. There are myriad obstacles that threaten the couples ability to stay together. There has to be a moment where either me or the characters feel like they might not make it. This conflict does not exist at all in The Time Traveler's Wife. There isn't a moment where I ever wonder if Henry and Clare are going to make it, nor is there a moment where they wonder (at least not for very long). We know they're going to make it because we've usually seen it in some scene from the future. There is nothing ever at stake in their relationship. Even in the few moments where their relationship is struggling (mainly Clare's inability to carry to term) are undercut by a scene where future Henry lets Clare know everything is going to be alright. Since every threat to their relationship is usually neutralized before it ever gets started, I became very bored with this book. Even the time traveling became a bit repetitive. It didn't become interesting to me again until Henry's life is immediate danger, and even then, the plotting is so slow at that point that I couldn't have cared less. I feel like it is possible for Niffenegger to have Henry traveling back and forth to the future and still be able to keep some aspects of their fate a secret. Especially since his future knowledge of events rarely poses a problem. The main conflict in this piece is that Henry can't stay in the present, but his inability to stay in the present does not create a noticeable strain on their relationship. He doesn't miss any major events, and Clare is rarely angered by his absences. She is the perfect long-suffering wife, which is sweet and all but it makes for a boring story.
I actually really liked parts of the beginning of the book. I found Henry a really interesting character. His guilt about his mother's death and his strained relationship with his father was compelling. I like the fact that we get to see Henry without Clare because we get to truly understand how she impacted his life. I did find his change a little bit too easy though. When he meets Clare he is a self-destructive philandering alcoholic, and he seems to get his act together pretty quickly. It would of been a lot more interesting if it took him a little bit longer to shake some of his bad habits. It would have given Clare a lot more to work with if she was given the chance to truly doubt whether the Henry she meets in the present could ever be the Henry from her past (his future). We have one scene where this idea is presented, but it is quickly deflated by future Henry coming in and reassuring her that he'll change. She never seems to doubt future Henry.
Clare-A Bit of a Mary Sue
I wish we could have seen Clare without Henry. Henry is an integral part of her life from childhood (which as hard as I tried I couldn't help but find kind of creepy). Her identity as a character is pretty much defined by him. Her personal conflicts (her family issues, particularly her mother's mental illness) don't feel like they're given as much weight as his. There's this really poignant scene where Clare reads this poem that shows how much her mother cared about her, but I feel like we don't get to see enough of Clare with her mother to know that that was ever an issue in their relationship. We're told that her father and brother are cold, but we never get to see it in action. Clare is just so perfect: pretty, smart, talented, sweet, etc which makes her a boring character to watch. There is very little room for growth. I wish we could have seen what she was up to the two years before she met Henry.(show spoiler)
I guess it's romantic to think that she never doubted she'd meet Henry and always held out for him, but I think it's more romantic when people have doubts but love anyway. It's easy to be faithful if your faith is never tested. There are all these really great moments where really strong conflicts could have been present that never really come to fruition.