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Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel
by Audrey Niffenegger
416 pages

I read this book recently and found it intriguing and clever but the ending disappointed me. That's the short version. The longer version is that Niffenegger is a very evocative writer with a trick or two up her sleeve. Her characters were interesting enough that after I read the free sample on my Kindle, I not only bought the book, I started reading it pretty much right away.

The story opens with a woman named Eslpeth dying in a London hospital. She has a devoted boyfriend named Robert who lives in the same apartment building (right next to a cemetery), but she leaves her flat and most of her money to her identical twin nieces, Valentina and Julia, who live in America with their mother, Elspeth's identical twin Edwina (Edie), and their father, who turns out to have once been engaged to Elspeth. The will specifies the twins have to live in the flat for a year and their parents cannot even visit it.

Julia and Valentina are oddly dependent on each other. They sleep in the same bed, wear identical clothes, and take the same college classes. Still, they can't seem to stay in college long enough to graduate, possibly because they aren't both good at the same things. At first they both seem content with this intense level of intimacy, but over time it becomes clear that Julia is dominant (her nickname for Valentia is Mouse) and Valentina feels suffocated. It's also clear that was some big secret behind the reason that their mother and aunt did not speak to each other for years. One reason we know that is that Elspeth's ghost inhabits her flat and ponders the past as she watches her nieces.

A subplot concerns Elspeth's neighbors Martin and Marjike. Martin has a truly terrible case of OCD but won't go to the doctor so Marjike finally leaves him and goes back to Amsterdam. I actually liked the subplot a lot, especially the resolution of it.

This is very much a London novel; most of it takes place in or near historic Highgate Cemetary, with frequent mentions made of real people who are buried there. I have only been in London once, for less than a week, but it was fun to hear some of the places I had visited described so well. At one point Robert and the twins go for a picnic and end up in the churchyard of St. Botolph-without-Aldersgate. I had stumbled across that same churchyard in my walks through the City, and it rang a bell when Niffenegger described it. She also does a good job making her characters compelling.

The thing is, the plot device at the end only works if Valentina does something really, really stupid. The author expects us to believe that a young woman who feels suffocated by her twin would ask to be killed, not because she wanted to die, but because she hoped she would be dead only a few days and then Elspeth's ghost would bring her back to life. The idea that maybe her body&mdash and brain— would be irretrievably damaged or that Elspeth might not be able to do bring her back at all seems not to worry her. Nor did Valntina ever consider trying to simply leave the flat and go somewhere else. To me, this reduced the story to a grade B horror movie where the young woman opens the door in the middle of the night, or goes into the basement alone when she hears a noise, or does any number of incredibly stupid things people do in horror movies because the plot demands it. I did not buy that Valentina would ask to try this incredibly dangerous trick, that Robert would go along with it, or that Elspeth's ghost would agree. The ghost writing messages in the dust was much more plausible to me than this part of the plot.

Audrey Niffenegger is best known, of course, for The Time Traveler's Wife and now I am torn on whether or not to read it. If anyone out there has read it, please tell me if the plot holds together or not. I like Niffenegger's writing, but I'm not willing to be lead down the cemetery path one more time.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
I didn't read the whole post because Symmetry is next on my TBR pile--book club book. However, I can highly recommend Time Traveler's Wife. The only problem my book club had with it (and it is universally one of the favorites of the club) is the suspension of belief thing. As one who reads/writes things that require a certain suspension of belief, I don't think that'd be a problem for you.
Jan. 11th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
Well, I don't have any problem with suspension of belief in ghosts— an essential plot point of HFS— but if the character motivation seems unrealistic, then I am disappointed.
Jan. 11th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
Character motivation? I don't think it's a problem. It was rather confusing to many of the women, however, because it date-hops all over the place; a necessary thing, considering he's a time traveler.
Jan. 11th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
I've read TTW, but not SYMMETRY (which I do intend to read.) If you can accept the basic conceit of TTW - a man travels through time without apparent scientific reason or justification - then the book is superb. The characters are richly drawn, and the interaction as they build toward a climax that is hinted at in the first pages works well. As a novel, it reminded me a lot of THE SPARROW, in its being speculative fiction while not being spec fic. If you know what I mean.

(And I didn't read all your notes on SYMMETRY, to preserve the newness-to-me when I get to it. Sorry!)
Jan. 11th, 2010 09:03 pm (UTC)
No, no! That's why I put the stuff behind the cut. Actually, once you read it, I'd really like to talk to you about it. I loved her characterizations; I just didn't like this one critical thing a character did.
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:20 am (UTC)
I don't know if you have purchased or read TTW. I loved it! They do try to offer a scientific explanation for his time traveling. I think the plot holds together and the motivations behind the characters' actions. I only had two "hmmm, not sure how I feel about that," moments. I HATED the movie BTW. I didn't even want to see it. It is not a book designed for a movie. It's too internal and dependent on nonverbal information IMHO.
Mar. 18th, 2010 12:17 pm (UTC)
I haven't gotten around to it yet, but it's on my (ever growing) list. I have not seen the movie. It looked to me like a story Hollywood could easily ruin.
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
Yes!!! We totally agree. I was so disappointed with the ending 1/3 of the book--but for the Martin/Marijke plotline. THAT, I loved. Completely.

So much handwavery went into that ending. I enjoyed the whole story of the twins, their parents--all three! I loved that Elspeth stuck around, and how she managed to communicate. I have to admit, I didn't see where it was all leading--I mean, it was interesting, but what was the story. And THEN--ugh! Give me a break. It fell apart completely. The only thing I did like in the end was that Robert left the bodysnatcher.

Part of the reason I was so disappointed is that I was expexting so much after The Time Traveler's Wife. TTW was SO tight. Every detail was present and accounted for. No handwavery. It was absolutely amazing in scope, detail, and story. Loved, loved, loved it.
Apr. 19th, 2010 10:03 pm (UTC)
I will have to read TTTW. You are not the first person to tell me is't a much better book that HFS.

Glad to know we agree!
Jan. 16th, 2011 09:55 pm (UTC)
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