Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger
Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster
published 2009
404 pages

I am all about the dead.

Allow me to explain.  As The Husband would say, I have ... an interest ... in many things pertaining to those who have crossed over to the other side. I read the obituaries every morning and have done so since I was 15. I believe that our loved ones are with us, maybe not at every second, but that they occasionally have a presence in our lives, that they watch over us, and that they communicate with us in certain ways. I've been to a psychic. (Make that two.)

So, it probably comes as no surprise when I say that I really enjoyed Audrey Niffenegger's novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. If you're as interested in this stuff as I am, this book just speaks to all that is mysterious and fascinating and mystical about what happens to our souls after we die. 

Julia and Valentina Poole are 20 year old twins who inherit a substantial amount of money from their deceased Aunt Elspeth, a fact that puzzles them because they never knew her.  Not only is Elspeth their mother's only sibling, but she is her twin.  Among the provisions in Aunt Elspeth's will is that Julia and Valentina  - who live in suburban Chicago - must live in her London flat for a year. Despite their parents' disapproval and under the spector of a long-buried and never-discussed dark family secret, Julia and Valentina move to London to embark on their new life together.

Or ... maybe not so together. For Valentina, the experience of living abroad presents an awakening desire to break free from the constraints of being tied to Julia and her twin's nebulous goals for both of them.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a novel about how one's identity can sometimes be shaped by the desires of those we love and are closest to, and the good (and not-so-good) consequences once those bonds are broken. Niffenegger shows us this dynamic in the lives of her characters. In addition to the two sets of twins (Julia and Valentina, Elspeth and Edie), the story also focuses on several other individuals.

There's Robert, Elspeth's lover who is a guide at, and a scholar of, the sprawling Highgate Cemetery adjacent to the building where he and Elspeth kept separate flats. (Did anyone else wonder why they lived separately? Struck me as somewhat odd, but that is the least of the oddness in that building.) There is also Martin and Marijke, another couple in the building who are also confined by the chains of their relationship (in their case, Martin's obsessive compulsive disorder and Marijke's desire, like Valentina's, to live a life that doesn't require such subjugation to another).

(I'm probably in the minority for thinking this, but I'm not entirely sold that Martin and Marijke even needed to be part of Her Fearful Symmetry to begin with. I liked and sympathized with them, and I feel they were included as a way to illustrate - perhaps to Valentina? - how someone can maintain a closeness with someone even while living independently, but there was more than enough going on with Julia, Valentina, Elspeth, and Robert to make for a satisfying read on their own. Don't get me wrong, they didn't detract from the novel. I'm just not sure their story was that essential.)

I was very immersed in the first third or so of the novel, which seemed to move at a good pace.  Towards the middle, however, the pacing lagged a bit, Julia's lack of ambition started to irk me, and I predicted one of the revelations that we learn near the end. Overall, I enjoyed my first read from Audrey Niffenegger (I'm the only person who hasn't read The Time Traveler's Wife) and I believe she is among our most talented contemporary authors. I look forward to reading more from her.

Ultimately, Her Fearful Symmetry is a gripping story about letting go of secrets and of one's past and predetermined path, and releasing those we love and who love us. That makes this a very satisfying read, one that has the ability to haunt the reader long after the last page.

What Other Bloggers Thought
(clearly, I am the very last person on Earth to read this one ....)

5 Minutes for Books
A Garden Carried in the Pocket
At Home With Books
books i done read
Books on the Brain
Care's Online Book Club
Devourer of Books
eclectic / eccentric
Farm Lane Books
Linus's Blanket
The Literate Housewife
Presenting Lenore
Reviews by Lola
Rhapsody in Books
S. Krishna's Books
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Stainless Steel Droppings
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On ...
The Book Lady's Blog

Did I miss your review?  Let me know in the comments!

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Trisha said...

I just read and reviewed this as well, and like you, it was my first Niffenegger. You are not the only one who hasn't read the Time Traveler's Wife! I really think that those of us who started with HFS liked it better than those who had already read TTTW.

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I was anxiously awaiting this one because I was one of the last people on earth to read The Time Traveler's Wife, her first novel. I LOVED IT So when I saw the ARC on my doorstep I squealed and told my husband that he wouldn't see me for 2 days.
I loved it. I thought it was marvelous!

I reviewed it back August?! I think.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I had mixed feelings about this book. One the one hand, I love the settings and the way the graveyard was a part of the story. But like you, some of the middle irked me and I wasn't sure what to make of all of it. I think the book suffered a bit of high expectation for me, but I still liked it.

Lori said...

I must be on another planet completely if you guys are the last ones on Earth to read Time Travelers Wife. I do own it, that should count! LOL This book sounds really good too! I think I'll add it to my library list, that way I'm sure to read it instead of put it in a pile.

Anonymous said...

This is actually BETTER than the Time Travellers Wife! So you've started the right way around :)

nomadreader said...

I haven't read The Time Traveler's Wife, but I was not as positive about this one as you are. I really liked the first half, and I loved her writing, but ultimately I didn't like the novel as a whole. I'm still looking forward to reading her other books!

Laurie said...

You're not the only one! I haven't read The Time Traveler's Wife either, and I adored Her Fearful Symmetry. I've gotten so caught up in people saying the second book didn't live up to the first, I'm excited to see the reactions of someone else who came to Her Fearful Symmetry first.