Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book 15: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Cool fact: my aunt is Audrey Niffenegger's physician.

I guess that doesn't count as having a real celebrity connection, but it's within six degrees of separation so it's good enough for me. My aunt was cool enough to take my copy of her first novel,The Time Traveler's Wife, back with her to Chicago after her last visit to be signed, and she recently sent me a "mission accomplished" email. Apparently, Audrey Niffenegger thinks my name is pretty.

Awesome? Indubitably.

Unfortunately what isn't awesome is the experience I had reading her latest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. It was one of those books that I bought in that epic Border's gift card splurge I went on at the end of last semester. Seeing as The Time Traveler's Wife is more or less my favorite novel, I was expecting greatness from this new addition to Niffenegger's body of work. Maybe that was the problem, since I was sorely disappointed with the novel in light of my great expectations.

Her Fearful Symmetry is about two identical mirror twins--Julia and Valentina--and, by extension, about their mother (Edie) and her estranged identical twin sister (Elspeth). The novel opens with Elspeth's death. She bequeaths her estate and most of her worldly possessions to her young nieces, stating that they will come into their inheritance at age 21 with the conditions that they live in her London flat for at least a year before selling it and that. The girls, who at age 20 have floated in and out of various colleges and now live in their parents' home in Chicago, decide to take Elspeth's offer.

They arrive in London a year later, Valentina more reluctantly than the bossy, dominant Julia. The two establish themselves in Elspeth's apartment next to London's famous Highgate Cemetery and explore the city together. Eventually they meet Elspeth's elusive lover, Robert, and Martin, an older man living in the building with persistent, debilitating OCD.

The novel quickly begins to explore the relationship between the twins. While highly dependent on each other, Julia and Valentina have very different ideas of what it means to be a twin, and Valentina spends much of the novel trying to emancipate herself from Julia. Her budding romance with the much-older Robert proves to be particularly divisive.

And then there's the ghost story. It turns out that Elspeth's ghost is still skulking around the apartment, and while she at first can't be detected or heard, she observes everything and eventually becomes able to communicate with Julia and Valentina using a Ouija Board set-up. The ghost story and Valentina's desire for individuality come together in what I consider to be a tragic but rather predictable end to the story, which I won't reveal here.

I was not pleased by this book. Besides being written in a manner that makes it difficult to really bond with or relate to the characters, the style is murky and lacks the fluidity and detail that made Niffenegger's first novel such a joy to read. It comes off as less intelligent and more gimmick-y than her previous work.

While the characters are life-like and believable, I found it easy to read about them without caring what happened to them (this is with exception to Martin, who was actually remarkably well-written and is arguably the single-most interesting character in the entire novel). The emotional developments of the characters are all so on the surface that there is no brain work left for the reader to do. Instead of being the literary experience that The Time Traveler's Wifewas for me, with its running themes and emotional undercurrents, Her Fearful Symmetry was something of a joke--predictable, cliched, and too much like the run-of-the-mill paperback. I wasn't a huge fan of the supernatural aspect of the story either, though it's undoubtedly a very cool idea. I guess it just wasn't for me.

Like I said before, maybe the biggest mistake I'm making in all of this is continually comparing Niffenegger's two books, but I think it's fair to hold one work to the standards of its predecessor. The conclusion I've come to regarding Her Fearful Symmetry is this: sweet idea, but lackluster execution. The book could have been shorter, less convoluted, and much more interesting.

Grade: C+
Rating: 13+ for mild language, minimal sexual content.

PS: Cool fact--I was presented with my high school diploma by none other than MC Hammer. And, what's more, I got a hug. That's right. I touched that. How d'you like me now? :P

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