Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book 68: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I already knew before I even started reading this novel that the reception to it had been mixed - the novel had not lived up to the expectations set by her previous novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, and really, how could anyone not fail after writing a novel as perfect and beautiful as that? Any follow up will be met with disappointment, no matter how good on its own merits, simply due to the comparison.

I think the main problem was with the characters. Niffenegger is an incredible writer, so I definitely was drawn into the story and read it rather quickly, despite the fact that most of the characters were simply alien and unrelatable to me. The Time Traveler's Wife was about normal people in extraordinary circumstances. Simply broken down, it was about the relationship between two people. This novel also had extraordinary circumstances but there were no normal people to truly anchor the story. I also feel like maybe there were too many characters - I wasn't sure who exactly I was supposed to be rooting for.

Is it about the twins and their codependent relationship? It was especially hard for me to get involved with them in the beginning because they are so odd. As the novel progresses, it becomes easier to connect, especially since they are no longer described as one unit, and Valentina struggles with her desires to be her own person.

Was the novel supposed to be a love story about Elspeth and Robert? I didn't quite buy it. The problem is that Elspeth dies at the beginning of the novel so it's hard to believe they have some kind of epic love, comparable to Henry and Clare, because the reader does not get to see it develop. It is simply presented that they were very much in love, and while Robert is clearly in grief, it wasn't enough. Also, I had this weird feeling that Robert loved Elspeth more than she loved him.

Niffenegger does a much better job of portraying Martin and Marijke, and showing what may have originally attracted them to each other, even though Marijke has left her husband of over twenty years. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like they were really the main focus of the novel. Valentina starts hanging out with the downstairs neighbor and to parallel this, Julia begins spending time with Martin. It's like they each needed their own neighbor to bond with. I also quite like Jessica and James, Robert's friends and colleagues from the Highgate Cemetery were he worked/volunteered as a tour guide, but they too were simply supporting cast.

As to the actual plot, after Elspeth dies of cancer in London, she bequeaths her apartment to her twin sister's twin daughters, whom she hasn't seen since they were four months old. The two sisters, Elspeth and Edie, haven't seen each other in over twenty years, and the reasons for this are left unexplained to the twins though there is some family drama about her father having originally been engaged to Elspeth and then marrying the other twin. There are a few stipulations to the will: they must live in the flat for one year to inherit it, after that year they can sell it but not before, their parents aren't allowed in the flat and they must wait until they are 21.

One year later, the twins are enroute to London to claim their inheritance. Julia is the dominant twin in the relationship and she tends to make the decisions. She was the one that wanted to go to London, and she is the one that keeps deciding to leave colleges and drag Valentina along in the process. Valentina resents this and wants to live her own life, attend college and become a fashion designer but she does not know how to break free of her sister. At 21, they still dress in matching outfits, which was one of the reasons I had such a hard time relating to them (I'm an only child, and according to my mother, too independent). I just did not understand why they felt they had to be so close or why Julia felt that this is how twins were supposed to act (I've known twins - they had some shared experiences but also had their own lives at 21).

In the beginning, Robert was a relatable and likable character but as the novel progressed, this became much less so. Obviously, there were some extenuating circumstances but I still didn't quite get his relationship with Elspeth or why they meant so much to each other.

And finally, there is Elspeth, the resident ghost. Soon after her death, she becomes aware that she is a ghost trapped in her old flat, and as time progresses, she slowly becomes stronger, growing from a vague cloud/mist to regaining her own shape and eventually she even has the power to move things. It is at this point that she figures out how to communicate with Robert and the twins, just as Robert is beginning to finally move on with his life (although the fact that he appears to be moving on with Valentina, his deceased girlfriend's niece who looks remarkably like her is dysfunctional in its own way and may prove that in fact he wasn't moving on). Elspeth even knows this yet she selfishly chooses to reveal herself at this time due to her loneliness, leaving Robert in a limbo and hell of his own - the love of his life is still present and though he can't physically touch her, he can still spend time with her and talk to her. Yeah, that's great.

In the later half of the novel, the characters just start making these incredibly dumb decisions that they obviously haven't thought out very well, and it really irritated me. One of them is a major plot point but I seriously wanted to strangle the person, and ask "what is wrong with all of you?" Robert also begins acting erratic, though as I said, probably with reason. By the end of the novel, the only character that seemed at all rational was Martin, a man who has extreme OCD and can't even leave his apartment - which is why his wife finally left him.

Obviously there are quite a few issues with this novel which is unfortunate because the writing is beautiful. I also think Niffenegger had quite a few interesting things to say about love and grief. The conflict between the twins could have been so interesting as each struggles to figure out who she is with or without her sister, and as they face the possibility of becoming their own unique individuals. Unfortunately, she took a turn somewhere that made it not quite come together and had her characters act in ways that really just made little sense towards the end.

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