Using alternating first-person perspectives, the novel tells the stories of Henry DeTamble (born 1963), a librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, and his wife, Clare Anne Abshire (born 1971), an artist who makes paper sculptures. Henry has a rare genetic disorder, which comes to be known as Chrono-Impairment, that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. When 20-year-old Clare meets 28-year-old Henry at the Newberry Library in 1991 at the opening of the novel, he has never seen her before, although she has known him most of her life.
Henry begins time traveling at the age of five, jumping forward and backward relative to his own timeline. When he leaves, where he goes, or how long his trips will last are all beyond his control. His destinations are tied to his subconscious—he most often travels to places and times related to his own history. Certain stimuli such as stress can trigger Henry's time traveling; he often goes jogging to keep calm and remain in the present. He searches out pharmaceuticals in the future that may be able to help control his time traveling. He also seeks the advice of a geneticist, Dr. Kendrick. Henry cannot take anything with him into the future or the past; he always arrives naked and then struggles to find clothing, shelter, and food. He amasses a number of survival skills including lock-picking, self-defense, and pickpocketing. Much of this he learns from older versions of himself.
Once their timelines converge "naturally" at the library—their first meeting in his chronology—Henry starts to travel to Clare's childhood and adolescence in South Haven, Michigan, beginning in 1977 when she is six years old. On one of his early visits (from her perspective), Henry gives her a list of the dates he will appear and she writes them in a diary so she will remember to provide him with clothes and food when he arrives. During another visit, he inadvertently reveals that they will be married in the future. Over time they develop a close relationship. At one point, Henry helps Clare frighten and humiliate a boy who abused her. Clare is last visited in her youth by Henry in 1989, on her eighteenth birthday, during which they make love for the first time. They are then separated for two years until their meeting at the library.
Clare and Henry marry, but Clare has trouble bringing a pregnancy to term because of the genetic anomaly Henry may presumably be passing on to the fetus. After six miscarriages, Henry wishes to save Clare further pain and has a vasectomy. However a version of Henry from the past visits Clare one night and they make love; she subsequently gives birth to a daughter, Alba. Alba is diagnosed with Chrono-Impairment as well but, unlike Henry, she has some control over her destinations when she time travels. Before she is born, Henry travels to the future and meets his ten-year-old daughter on a school field trip and learns that he dies when she is five years old.
When he is 43, during what is to be his last year of life, Henry time travels to a Chicago parking garage on a frigid winter night where he is unable to find shelter. As a result of the hypothermia and frostbite he suffers, his feet are amputated when he returns to the present. Henry and Clare both know that without the ability to escape when he time travels, Henry will certainly die within his next few jumps. On New Year's Eve 2006 Henry time travels into the middle of the Michigan woods in 1984 and is accidentally shot by Clare's brother, a scene foreshadowed earlier in the novel. Henry returns to the present and dies in Clare's arms.
Clare is devastated by Henry's death. She later finds a letter from Henry asking her to "stop waiting" for him, but which describes a moment in her future when she will see him again. The last scene in the book takes place when Clare is 82 years old and Henry is 43. She is waiting for Henry, as she has done most of her life.
Niffenegger is an artist who teaches at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, where she prepares editions of handpainted books. She produced some of her earlier works in editions of ten copies, which were sold in art galleries. However, she decided that The Time Traveler's Wife would have to be a novel: "I got the idea for the title, and when I draw I have this big drawing table covered with brown paper, and I write ideas down on the paper. So I wrote down this title and after a while I started to think about it. I couldn't think of a way to make it a picture book because still pictures don't represent time very well, so I decided to write a novel." She was intrigued by the title because "it immediately defined two people and their relationship to each other". Niffenegger said that its source was an epigraph to J. B. Priestley's 1964 novel Man and Time: "Clock time is our bank manager, tax collector, police inspector; this inner time is our wife." Drawing her central theme from this image, she says, "Henry is not only married to Clare; he's also married to time." Other authors whom Niffenegger has cited as influencing the book include Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Henry James, and Dorothy Sayers.
She has said the story is a metaphor for her own failed love affairs and that "I had kind of got the idea that there's not going to be some fabulous perfect soulmate out there for me, so I'll just make him up." She also drew on her parents' marriage for inspiration—her father spent the bulk of each week traveling. Despite the story's analogies to her own life, Niffenegger has forcefully stated that Clare is not a self-portrait; "She's radically different. I am much more willful and headstrong. ... I don't think I could go through a lifetime waiting for someone to appear, no matter how fascinating he was."
Niffenegger began writing the novel in 1997; the last scene, in which an aged Clare is waiting for Henry, was written first, because it is the story's focal point. The narrative was originally structured thematically. Responding to comments from readers of early drafts of the manuscript, Niffenegger reorganized the narrative so that it largely followed Clare's timeline. The work was finished in 2001. With no history of commercial publication, Niffenegger had trouble finding interested literary agents—25 rejected the manuscript. In 2002, she sent it unsolicited to the small, San Francisco-based publisher MacAdam/Cage, where it reached Anika Streitfeld. Streitfeld, who became Niffenegger's editor, "thought it was incredible. Right from the very beginning you feel like you are in capable hands, that this is someone who has a story to tell and who knows how to tell it." She gave it to David Poindexter, the founder of the publishing firm, "who read it overnight and decided to buy the book". However, Niffenegger had acquired an agent by this time, and several publishing houses in New York City were interested in the novel. The manuscript was put up for auction and MacAdam/Cage bid US$100,000, by far the largest sum it had ever offered for a book. Although another publisher outbid them, Niffenegger selected MacAdam/Cage because they were so dedicated to her work. Also, Niffenegger explains that her "own natural inclination is to go small. My background is in punk music—I'd always pick the indie company over the giant corporation."
Reviewers have found The Time Traveler's Wife difficult to classify generically: some categorize it as science fiction, others as a romance. Niffenegger herself is reluctant to label the novel, saying she "never thought of it as science fiction, even though it has a science-fiction premise". In Niffenegger's view, the story is primarily about Henry and Clare's relationship and the struggles they endure. She has said that she based Clare and Henry's romance on the "cerebral coupling" of Dorothy Sayers's characters Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
Time travel stories to which the novel has been compared include Jack Finney's Time and Again (1970) F.M. Busby's short story "If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy" and the film Somewhere in Time (1980). Henry has been compared to Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Science fiction writer Terence M. Green calls the novel a "timeslip romance". The Time Traveler's Wife is not as concerned with the paradoxes of time travel as is traditional science fiction. Instead, as critic Marc Mohan describes, the novel "uses time travel as a metaphor to explain how two people can feel as if they've known each other their entire lives". Robert Nathan's Portrait of Jennie, as novel, or film, is another obvious comparison, although Jennie, as a ghost, travels time in one direction, not randomly.
Elements of the plot, particularly the list, bear comparison with Heinlein's 1941 By His Bootstraps, and in turn, with River Song's diary in Dr Who.
Niffenegger identifies the themes of the novel as "mutants, love, death, amputation, sex, and time". Reviewers have focused on love, loss, and time. As Charlie Lee-Potter writes in The Independent, the novel is "an elegy to love and loss". The love between Henry and Clare is expressed in a variety of ways, including through an analysis and history of the couple's sex life.
While much of the novel shows Henry and Clare falling in love, the end is darker and "time travel becomes a means for representing arbitrariness, transience, [and] plain bad luck", according to The Boston Globe's Judith Maas. As Andrew Billen argues in The Times, "The book may even serve as a feminist analysis of marriage as a partnership in which only the male is conceded the privilege of absence." Several reviewers noted that time travel represents relationships in which couples cannot quite communicate with each other. Natasha Walter of The Guardian describes the story's attention to "the sense of slippage that you get in any relationship—that you could be living through a slightly different love story from the one your partner is experiencing." She points, for example, to the section of the book which describes the first time Clare and Henry make love. She is 18 and he is 41, already married to her in his present. After this interlude, he returns to his own time and his own Clare, who says,
Henry's been gone for almost twenty-four hours now, and as usual I'm torn between thinking obsessively about when and where he might be and being pissed at him for not being here ... I hear Henry whistling as he comes up the path through the garden, into the studio. He stomps the snow off his boots and shrugs off his coat. He's looking marvelous, really happy. My heart is racing and I take a wild guess: "May 24, 1989?" "Yes, oh, yes!" Henry scoops me up ... and swings me around. Now I'm laughing, we're both laughing.
The novel raises questions about determinism and free will. For example, critic Dan Falk asks, "Given that [Henry's] journey has 'already happened,' should he not simply be compelled to act precisely as he remembers seeing himself act? (Or perhaps he is compelled, and merely feels he has a choice...?)." Although Henry seemingly cannot alter the future, the characters do not become "cynical" and, according to Lee-Potter, the novel demonstrates that people can be changed through love. Walter notes that there is a "quasi-religious sense" to the inevitability of Henry's and Clare's lives and deaths. Niffenegger, however, believes that the novel does not depict destiny but rather "randomness and meaninglessness".
The hardback edition of The Time Traveler's Wife was published in the United States in September 2003 by MacAdam/Cage and in the United Kingdom by Random House on 1 January 2004. MacAdam/Cage initiated an "extensive marketing drive", including advertising in The New York Times and The New Yorker and a promotional book tour by Niffenegger. As a result, the novel debuted at number nine on the New York Times bestseller list. After popular crime writer Scott Turow, whose wife is a friend of Niffenegger, endorsed it on The Today Show, the first print run of 15,000 sold out and 100,000 more copies were printed. In Britain, the book received a boost from its choice as a Richard & Judy book club recommendation—nearly 45,000 copies were sold in one week. It was named the 2003 Amazon.com Book of the Year. A December 2003 article in The Observer reported that although "a tiny minority of American reviewers" felt that the novel was "gimmicky", it was still "a publishing sensation". At that point, the novel had been sold to publishers in 15 countries. As of March 2009, it had sold almost 1.5 million copies in the United States and 1 million in the United Kingdom. The success of The Time Traveler's Wife prompted almost every major publishing firm to attempt to acquire Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which has been called "one of the most eagerly sought-after works in recent publishing history". It garnered her an advance of US$5 million from Scribner's.
Reviewers praised Niffenegger's characterization of Henry and Clare, particularly their emotional depth. Michelle Griffin of The Age noted that although Henry "is custom-designed for the fantasy lives of bookish ladies", his flaws, particularly his "violent, argumentative, depressive" nature, make him a strong, well-rounded character. Charles DeLint wrote in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that one of Niffenegger's "greatest accomplishments" in the novel was her ability to convey the emotional growth of Clare and Henry in character arcs while at the same time alternating their perspectives. Stephen Amidon of The Times, however, questioned the selfishness of the central characters.
Most reviewers were impressed with the premise of the novel, but critical of its melodramatic style. While Griffin praised the plot and concept as "clever", she complained that Niffenegger's writing is usually "pedestrian" and the story at times contrived. Heidi Darroch of the National Post agreed, contending that the story has an excess of overwrought emotional moments "which never quite add up to a fully developed plot". Writing in The Chicago Tribune, Carey Harrison praised the originality of the novel, specifically the intersection of child-bearing and time travel. Despite appreciating the novel's premise, Amidon complained that the implications of Henry's time-traveling were poorly thought out. For example, Henry has foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks but does nothing to try to prevent them. Instead, on 11 September 2001, he gets up early "to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer". Amidon also criticized the novel's "overall clumsiness", writing that Niffenegger is "a ham-fisted stylist, long-winded and given to sudden eruptions of cliche". Miriam Shaviv agreed to an extent, writing in The Jerusalem Post, "There are no original or even non-cliched messages here. True love, Niffenegger seems to be telling us, is timeless, and can survive even the worst circumstances. ... And yet, the book is a page-turner, delicately crafted and psychologically sound." The Library Journal described the novel as "skillfully written with a blend of distinct characters and heartfelt emotions"; it recommended that public libraries purchase multiple copies of the book.
On September 23, 2013 it was announced that a sequel to the novel is in the works. The sequel will focus on Henry and Clare's daughter Alba as an adult. She finds herself in love with two different men: Zach, a normal man, and Oliver, a musician and fellow time-traveler. The first 25 pages are currently available with the purchase of The Time Traveler's Wife eBook. In February 2014, Niffenegger estimated that the book "should be ready in 2018 or so".
BBC Audio published an audio book of The Time Traveler's Wife that was narrated by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow, described as "feisty readers" in one review.
HighBridge also produced an unabridged version in 2003, which is twelve hours long and narrated by Maggi-Meg Reed and Christopher Burns; their performance has been described as "sincere and passionate".
The 2006 Audible/HighBridge version is narrated by Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole and is 17:43 in length.
Audible.co.uk produced an unabridged version in 2008, also narrated by Hope and Lefkow.
The film rights for The Time Traveler's Wife were optioned by Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment, in association with New Line Cinema, before the novel was even published. The adaptation was written by Bruce Joel Rubin and directed by Robert Schwentke, and stars Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. Filming began in September 2007 and the movie was released by Warner Bros. on 14 August 2009. When asked about the prospect of her novel being turned into a film, Niffenegger said, "I've got my little movie that runs in my head. And I'm kind of afraid that will be changed or wiped out by what somebody else might do with it. And it is sort of thrilling and creepy, because now the characters have an existence apart from me." In general, the film received mixed-to-negative reviews. For example, The New York Times wrote that the film was an "often ridiculous, awkward, unsatisfying and dour melodramatic adaptation".