Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger

I had heard of this book before, but whatever I'd heard hadn't piqued my interest enough to put it on my list of books to read. It wasn't until Kat read it and blogged about it that I decided I needed to read it. And, lucky me, my local library has a copy!

This book was not nearly as good as Niffenegger's first, The Time Traveler's Wife. Of course, that's been one of my favorite recent reads, and there was a lot to live up to. I wonder if I would have been more appreciative if my expectations hadn't been so high? That being said, this was still a pretty decent book. On the scale from Rhino Ranch to The Amnesiac, this was probably a solid Birth of Venus.

Initially Niffenegger's writing seems much less down-to-earth and much more artificial than in The Time Traveler's Wife, and this book suffers by comparison. The entire book is certainly not as tight, and is less engaging as a result. It took too long for two of the main characters (the twins, Julia and Valentina) to seem like real people. It wasn't until Valentina began attempting to live a separate life from Julia that I got a sense of character development. That may have been intentional on Niffenegger's part, but it didn't work for me. And, speaking of Valentina (and Elspeth, and probably others who aren't coming to mind at the moment), the corny names annoyed me. Nobody named Elspeth is younger than 80 these days. Was this supposed to make them sound more British? (Yes, of course Valentina was American, but her name was chosen by Brits).

Coming to this story with no preconceived notions, I was surprised to find it is a ghost story, although I suppose the supernatural element shouldn't faze me after Niffenegger's first novel involved a very non-science-fiction type of time travel. I was at first kind of disappointed that the ghost element was confirmed so quickly--the possibility introduced in one chapter, and revealed in the chapter immediately following. It would have been interesting to have that drawn out, with a few more clues and suspicions. But I guess I must accept that this is not that kind of ghost story. And, looking back now, had Elspeth's ghost been introduced in the more suspenseful way I'd wished for, that would have bogged the story down and derailed it for a time.

At the beginning of the book, I was strongly and oddly reminded of Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. Both books open (well, this one has 2 other chapters first) with a cold day in an London cemetery (this one is Highgate; I try to remember, but can't, if the location of the crematorium in Amsterdam was named, but the description in my memory firmly matches that of Highgate). Both books also have a Molly (though she is a very minor character in "Symmetry"), and Martin's wife moves to Amsterdam! The similarities ended there, but it was interesting to read that Robert took the twins to Postman's Park, which is where Natalie Portman's character in the movie Closer chose her false name of Alice. (I never knew the name of that place, or even that it was real, until the familiarity I felt upon reading the description in the book encouraged me to google it.)

Robert's thoughts during Elspeth's funeral are poignant: "How will I remember everything about Elspeth? . . . At this moment he knew everything he would ever know of Elspeth, and he urgently needed to stop time so that nothing could escape . . . now he was running past her, losing her. She was already fading. I should write it all down... but nothing would be adequate. Nothing I can write would bring her back." I have known that feeling; the twin sorrows of wanting to write down every memory so I will never forget any of them, and of knowing I can form no new memories with that person. It is peculiar to read what seems to be my own thoughts captured in a book.

Does the fact that I don't quite understand the book's title make me a dummy? I am guessing the "her" is Elspeth, and the "symmetry" refers to the theme of twin-ness running throughout the book, but I'm not sure about that and I wonder if I'm missing something. There are quite a few interesting parallels: Martin, who can't leave his flat due to OCD, and Elspeth as a ghost, who can't leave her flat due to the arbitrary-seeming supernatural rules; Edie, who loses her twin, and Julia, who loses hers; the separation of Edie and Elspeth (or Elspeth and Robert, for that matter), the separation of Martin and Marijke, and the separation Valentina longs for.

Finally, in regard to the ending, I am left wondering: where did Robert go? What did he do? What decision had he made when he "laughed out loud at the obviousness of it"? (Gosh, is it supposed to be obvious to me, too??) Did he have death in mind (because why else would he have left his unfinished manuscript behind)? Was the manuscript actually his thesis or did he rewrite it to explain everything? (And if so, why can't I read that?) He seemed no longer attached either to Valentina or to Elspeth by the end, so I don't believe he left Elspeth in order to try to be with Valentina.

Ambiguity! Sometimes it kills me.

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