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Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry - Edit 2

Before modification by Legolas at 25/10/2009 09:58:31 PM

Two weeks ago, Rebekah posted a report of an event she attended in Edinburgh to promote the new book by Audrey Niffenegger, an American author who gained fame and quite some praise for her first book The Time Traveller's Wife. The new book is called Her Fearful Symmetry, and since I read it from front to cover during the many hours I spent on the train today, I figured I'd post a review to complement the report and interview in Rebekah's post (see link).

Since Her Fearful Symmetry (henceforward abbreviated as HFS, sue me, I'm lazy :P ) is the second novel by an author whose first book became a rapid popular and critic success, it is perhaps inevitable that it'll be compared to the previous one, and that people come into it expecting more of the same. Equally inevitably, that expectation is met in some regards but not in others. HFS has a number of similarities to its predecessor, most notably the concept of a story that's strongly rooted in the real world but contains one significant supernatural element that's central to the plot. Where the Time Traveler's Wife had the rather science fiction-like element of time traveling in contemporary Chicago, HFS has a more Romantic/Victorian element in the shape of ghosts, in a setting in and around a (contemporary) London cemetery.

There are also differences, however. HFS is a more complex tale, with more characters, more prominent descriptions and perhaps also more depth than the relatively straightforward romance of the Time Traveler's Wife.

The book begins with the death of one of the protagonists, Elspeth, who then becomes a ghost confined to the limits of her apartment, right outside London's Highgate Cemetery. Conveniently, she has decided before her death to leave her apartment to her twin sister's twin daughters Julia and Valentina, though they live in America and she last saw them when they were four months old. Eventually the twins arrive in London and try to figure out both their own lives and the secrets they feel have to lie behind the sudden and drastic break between their mother and aunt all those years ago, with the help of Elspeth's lover Robert and her heavily OCD neighbour Martin, while Elspeth's ghost watches them with interest.

As one might suspect from the phrase "her twin sister's twin daughters" in the paragraph above, Niffenegger devotes a lot of attention to the complicated relations between twins. The tension between Julia and Valentina as they try to figure out what to do with their lives in a foreign environment drives much of the novel, and in the background the things that happened between Elspeth and her twin sister Edie still play an important role. The romantic relationships of the four women add to the complication. Thus one doesn't need to search far for the meaning of the "symmetry" in the title (in addition to the pun with "symmetry" and "cemetery" ). Considering that, it's not a great surprise that the tension between the twins of the current generation leads to a dramatic climax, mirroring the dramatic event between their mother and aunt.

That climax, however, for me personally, reduced HFS from a superb book and instant favourite to a good book that I have ambivalent feelings about. Several of the main characters start a course of action that is not only ill-conceived and doomed from the start (as was the earlier course of action between Elspeth and Edie, truth be told; I could not truly understand either, but maybe that's just me), but also shockingly and unwarrantedly cruel. While Niffenegger does not shy away from the consequences of those actions and devotes ample attention to the complicated feelings they cause in both the perpetrators (in the broadest sense of the word) and the victims, I found it hard to care very much about the resolution after such a twist. I recall only one other example of having an ending ruining my pleasure in a book as drastically, which was Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest - even if I can't even recall just what that ending was. In that case, I ended up not reading the sequels nor any of Marillier's other books (though I may yet do so). I do think I'll continue to read Niffenegger's books, but it's a shame all the same.

In conclusion, I would say that Her Fearful Symmetry is a more than worthy successor to The Time Traveler's Wife, and that Niffenegger's writing if anything has improved. Thematically and stylistically, it's a very good book, with credible descriptions of the British setting and characters for an American author, and even a well-written Dutch character (although Brits and especially Londoners might find a few small things that are off, as I found in the Dutch character and her occasional Dutch sentences). In terms of characters and their stories, Niffenegger shows that she can weave a plot involving a significantly larger cast while still making the reader care for all of those characters, although perhaps Martin's story is slightly too detached from the main plotline. My only major point of criticism is that climax, but other readers may well find it less objectionable. In any case, the flaw isn't large enough to overshadow the book's qualities, and I would still recommend the book, both to those who loved her previous book and those who thought it was a bit of a lightweight.
Rebekah on Niffenegger's Edinburgh appearance

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