Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

*Disclaimer* I hate book reviews that give away too much of the plot so I don't do that. You should feel free to read this review even if you haven't read the book already: mostly it is just details found on the back of the book or in the front cover and my ramblings about the process of me reading the book!

I was a reading fool while on vacation in July! I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (reviewed here) and just finished The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (which I hope review soon). Between those two books, I read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

Four years ago I read The Time Traveler's Wife. I was stranded in the Atlanta airport. I was by myself and my flight had been delayed for something like twelve hours. I needed something to keep my mind busy so I wouldn't freak out so I wandered into the bookstore. I don't remember why I picked up The Time Traveler's Wife. If I'm being completely honest, it probably had something to do with the cover. In my mind I equate a glossy cover with only words on it with more of a chick-lit/mass produced author (i.e. John Grisham). However, a nice matte cover with a cryptic photograph? Oh la la - now you're talking.

I devoured The Time Traveler's Wife. I read it the entire time while I was in the airport. I read it the next three evenings after the work conference I was attended ended. And finally I finished it in my own apartment upon returning home a few days later. I loved every minute of reading The Time Traveler's Wife.

Then, for some reason, I flipped to the back of the book and read the Reading Group Guide. I have no idea why I did this. I had finished the book already. I think it had actually been weeks since I had finished the book. And I most certainly was not in a Reading Group. But despite this, I read the Reading Group Guide.

And suddenly I thought the book's protagonist Henry was a manipulative jerk. Suddenly Claire, his wife, was stupid and naive. Suddenly the whole book was just a shadow in the greatness of which I had praised it just days earlier. And suddenly the title of the book made sense because all Claire ended up being was the time traveler's wife. She had absolutely no other identity and I hated her for it.

So with this history with Audrey Niffenegger, why on earth would I decide to read another one of her books, you ask?

Simple - I figured I'd read the book and then not read the Reading Group Guide.

Genius, right?

Unfortunately, I fear Ms. Niffenegger caught wind of my sneaky plan.

There is no Reading Group Guide in Her Fearful Symmetry.

Damn you, Ms. Niffenegger. Damn you.

This book starts off interestingly enough and Ms. Niffenegger lures you into her little trap. On the first page, Elspeth dies. It is her will that sets the events of the book in motion. She leaves her estate to her two nieces, Julia and Valentina, whom she's never met. Julia and Valentina move to London to live in Elspeth's apartment for one year. Julia makes friends with their neighbor Martin, who suffers from OCD and hopes to someday travel to Denmark to reunite with his estranged wife. Valentina, on the other hand, befriends Robert, another neighbor and Elspeth's former lover who is struggling to get over her death.

Her Fearful Symmetry includes a lot of descriptions as opposed to dialogue. A central location of the book is a historic cemetery where Robert works and Elspeth is buried and Ms. Niffenegger seems to believe that the layout and appearance of the cemetery is of utmost importance to the reader. In the back of the book, it is revealed that Ms. Niffenegger herself is considered a historian of the cemetery, which actually does exist, so her extensive descriptions were possibly a bit unintentionally self-serving.

In contrast to The Time Traveler's Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry operates in a world of blatant fantasy. At one point, I complained to Husband that the book was getting a little too unrealistic for me and that it surprised me. Then I realized that the other book I'd read by this author is titled The Time Traveler's Wife and is by definition complete fantasy. But my recollection of The Time Traveler's Wife is that Ms. Niffenegger attempts to set forth a scientific explanation for Henry's time traveling. And frankly, time traveling is something that I'm much more willing to accept as a possible occurrence than ghosts. Ms. Niffenegger offers no explanation for Elspeth's presence as a ghost: in this world, ghosts apparently exist and people just go along with that.

Because there is no Reading Group Guide in Her Fearful Symmetry, Ms. Niffenegger takes it upon herself to make each and every character completely and totally dislikable during the course of the novel. Maybe I'm wrong on this and maybe some of you will tolerate, or perhaps even like, some of these characters, but by the end of the book, I thought they were all rather contemptible.

Part of my dislike of Valentina and Julia, who I suppose are designed to be the most sympathetic characters in the book, stems from their complete and utter inability to separate from their twinness. Now granted, I know next to nothing about being a twin. One of my good friends from law school is a twin. And for a while, I cornered the market in babysitting twin two year olds. But an expert, this does not make me. I just have a very difficult time grasping Valentina and Julia's inability to function other than as a pair because has not at all been my very limited experience with twins. Julia didn't want to go to school so Valentina doesn't either. Julia wanted to go to London, but Valentina really didn't. Julia becomes upset when Valentina stays out late on a date with Robert. They slept together in the same room, in the same bed, despite being adults. God forbid these girls live separate lives! At a certain point, these young ladies needed to learn to function on their own and yet no one in their lives ever seemed to encourage or demand that.

Here's the problem though: I enjoyed reading the book, despite being thoroughly annoyed and unsatisfied with it. Ms. Niffenegger writes short chapters and dangles small cliff hangers at the end of every section, tempting you to move on to the next page. Will I read Ms. Niffenegger's next release? Probably. And I'm rather confident that I'll hate that book when it's all said and done too.

I think Audrey Niffenegger is the perfect example of an author whom I love to hate!

Now I know millions of others have read and enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife and by no means am I trying to dissuade you from reading Her Fearful Symmetry. Go ahead, read it. I'm glad I did. I just was rather disappointed with all the characters by the end of it. Perhaps I'm just used to a world where someone is likeable (I remember when Husband and I watched Arrested Development and I was convinced that Michael Bluth was a good guy when he's actually really not!). It's really hard to like any of Ms. Niffenegger's characters though.

Does that make her a bad author? Of course not.

Does it make this a bad book. I don't think so.

So if anyone else has read Her Fearful Symmetry I'd be interested to hear your response to it. Am I just being overly sensitive and expecting too much from her characters? Or am I right in thinking they're all a bit horrible?

I just finished The Thirteenth Tale a few nights ago so a review of that is forthcoming!

Happy Reading!


  1. I like that you don't give away too much with the book reviews!

  2. haha this is an excellent book review! i loved Time Traveler's Wife... but i didn't read the book group guide, and didn't really think much about it after I finished it. For whatever reason, this review actually made me want to read Her Fearful Symmetry even though i also hate when *none* of the characters are likable (that's why I hated The Corrections and The Dive From Clausen's Pier). But have you read the The Confederacy of Dunces? Despicable main character but so so so enjoyable to read.

  3. I read this book too a few months ago and I was frustrated at the ending. It was definitely a unique story but it left me wanting. I LOVED the time traveler's wife though and I think she's a great author. I also read the Thirteenth Tale and loved it!

  4. Jenny - Haha thanks! I always hate when I'm reading a review and then all of a sudden, there's the ending! Oooooh!

    sophiebee - Don't read them! You'll be so mad at yourself if you do - just enjoy the experience of reading the book! I wish I had! I'd definitely recommend reading this one too because I did enjoy the journey tremendously. I haven't read The Confederacy of Dunces - I'll check that out!

    Sara - I agree completely - the ending seemed to happen so fast and then the book was over! I was like, "Wait what?!" I did like The Thirteenth Tale though - I have to write up that review next while it's still fresh in my mind!

  5. I gotta tell you I really did not like Her Fearful Symmetry. I was bored by it. I finally skipped ahead to the ending and felt really angry with it. It's rare for me to not go through a whole book so this tells me this one was a disaster.

  6. Jacquelyn - I suspect if I hadn't been stranded on a beach with nothing else to read, I might have given up too. I certainly wouldn't have bothered finishing it post-vacation if I had more to read. I'm glad I'm not the only one who wasn't a fan!