marginalia || Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

HERFEARFULSYMMETRYA resounding, NO. For the love of all that is good and holy, do NOT read Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger. [I wish I could stop there, and we could all have some Margaritas, but no, I have to back this up, because I have integrity that way. Gah.] Where was I? Oh yeah — do NOT read this book.

Why did I read this book, then?

  1. I couldn’t help myself. Kudos to rabid marketing. Over at Twitter and Facebook, copies of these books were being given away in happy little baskets, and I felt like I was missing out, as in, What’s the big deal? Of course, hinging on the fact that her debut novel is now infamous, well, of course this books has to be a big deal. Five million dollars of a big deal.
  2. I got it for free. That is, I said on my non-BookBlog Twitter that I was curious about the book, and a friend of mine got a copy for me. Yay friends.
  3. I was staying at my boyfriend’s one weekend and I ran out of books I hadn’t read yet, so this had to fill a couple hours. Read: I didn’t have anything else to read.

Okay. Some notes on this whole dirty business:

  1. It’s not even a “Sophomore Curse” — there’s a dignity to that, a certain inevitability of the second time rolling around and it just doesn’t make the cut. I would like to say now that I would not be making any comparisons to The Time Traveler’s Wife, because, in my opinion, a book as horrific as Her Fearful Symmetry must not taint any other book out there minding its own business. HFS is not horrific because TTW was good; HFS is one of those rare gems that are just horrific on their own right.
  2. It is such a pity that I might just be ripping this book a new one, because it’s actually a pretty book, it looks and feels pretty. I got the jumbo trade paperback edition, with its crisp pages, and shiny cover (image above). So yeah. PITY.
  3. I’m really not usually this snarky. And this will be an incredibly difficult review to write.

On with it.

[1] What Happens (I). Let me give you a rough sketch on What The Book’s About: There’s Elspeth, which is a really unfortunate name (sorry), and she dies as soon as you read the novel. She leaves behind her lover, Robert Fanshaw, a trust fund bebeh and a scholar researching Highgate Cemetery. BY THE WAY Elspeth has a twin (Edie) she hasn’t talked to for twenty years, and BY THE WAY, Edie has a set of twins of her own (with this dude named Jack), named Valentina and Julia. Elspeth leaves her London flat to V and J, and there’s the condition that Edie and Jack aren’t allowed to set foot in it, and the twins must stay there for a year, blah blah blah. The apartment building borders Highgate Cemetery, which, I must tell you, is as cardboard-y a background as they come. Where was I? Oh yeah. It all goes downhill from this ludicrous set up.

[2] The Characters. The book abounds with lazy writing and characterization. Senselessness can be an endearing trait when it’s a fatal flaw (in the case of one character, Martin the OCD-stricken neighbor), but NOT when it’s a way of life (in the case of the rest of the characters). Elspeth Noblin is an amoral, conniving, whiny, downright smarmy thing. She died, and now, too bad, she’s a ghost. Even in the first parts of the novel, there’s a malevolence  to her that did not come across as compelling for me, just, well, smarmy, like someone made a doodoo on the floor, and the doodoo is sniggering. I could have liked Edie Noblin-Poole (she’s normal, for goodness’ sake), but it turns out she’s not normal at all, she’s as stupid as the whole lot of them–why, for heaven’s sake, why Edie (or whoever you are). Robert is spineless. I get that he’s grieving–but it just seems so laughable that he feels human most when he’s “going against the wishes” of Hovering Ghost Elspeth; one of the scenes that stuck to me was when Robert and Valentina were in his apartment, Robert doing the dishes, and he slips his sudsy hands under her shirt–so casual, so certain, so laughably human.

Especially with Robert, I guess Niffenegger was showing us how the death of one person can cause havoc on the lives of the people she left behind. More so when that person can’t stay dead. Bah. Goddamned meddlesome ghosts.

At one point, however, around that “Twist,” Robert become even more unrecognizable–isn’t he a hazy character at best, defined only by his grief and his indecisions? I mean, dude, HOW CAN YOU LIVE WITH YOURSELF KNOWING KNOWING KNOWING BAH?

HFSTWINS

Dude. You're 20-year-olds. I don't care about your reasons for dressing alike. You just are not supposed to, not how Niffenegger wrote you guys.

And then there’s Julia and Valentina Poole. [In the popular culture of this country, Valentina is a Medusa-like villainess who battles with a skimpily clad superheroine. Thought you should know.] One writer (I think it was Alice Hoffman) said that in stories of sisters, one is always more, one is always something else. Julia Poole is bossier, a seemingly steadier person than her twin sister, whom she calls Mouse. And although Mouse tends to follow Julia’s lead, Julia intensely needs for Mouse to follow her lead. Julia, for all her staunch bossiness, can’t function without subservient Valentina. Valentina, for all her desire to be free of Julia’s staunch bossiness, “achieves” it in the most idiotic plot twists known in contemporary literature.

This is what this entire novel is–people who can’t stand on their own, people who aren’t really people in that they need their dependency on other people to define who they are. Elspeth and Robert. Elspeth and Edie. Jack and Edie. Julia and Valentina. Even Martin and Marijke.

But the glaring difference of Martin and Marijke’s relationship to the rest is that they prove that you can exist without this dependency. You can resist this intense need to be defined by another person, to function without that intense need of another person. Marijke was once described as “a subservient wife”–no, she isn’t. She knew what she had to do so she could wrest her life and the loving from her husband’s overwhelming disorder. And Martin had enough mettle in him to give something back to Marijke, to set out in that big, scary, disorganized world.

[I'm really not done yet.]

[3] The Relationships of the Characters. In connection with the last paragraphs above–there’s no tension, no resistance. And when Niffenegger tries to inject some, it fails, and horribly so. Julia and Valentina are as listless and blah as they come; of course they’d bend to the desires of the people around them. Julia refuses to go to college, and although Valentina can actually do something with her life, she, again, bends to her twin’s will. The relationship between the two of them are as tedious in its spinelessness as they come. It’s a novel of people who either can’t make decisions on their own, or are easily swayed by the decisions of others (who incidentally decide based on the decisions of even more others). That’s why I like Martin and Marijke’s story best–Elspeth can’t meddle with them. You’d think that Edie and Jack Poole, ensconced in Chicago, are safe from all this madness. Of course not. OF COURSE NOT THEY’RE IDIOTS TOO TWENTY YEARS WORTH OF IMPLAUSIBLE IDIOCY.

[4] The Setting. Highgate Cemetery is such a vital part of this story that you’d think it’ll be the best written of the lot. No. I completely disagree with all the authors out there who say that Niffenegger employs her chosen setting skillfully. OH NO SHE DOESN’T. The Highgate Cemetery tour given by Robert Fanshaw is one clearcut evidence of the author’s lazy writing. I get it, it’s a tour, the tour guide will talk about the history, blah blah–but a better writer would have weaved that into the narrative, not presented it to the reader in one brochure-happy chunk.

In hindsight, Highgate Cemetery didn’t serve a purpose. A papier-mache background if anything. The novel was already cluttered, and there was no seamlessness between the affairs of the characters and the cemetery. It was such a goddamned prop, as though it proved that THIS IS GOTHIC YO. It was like it was there because this is a gothic story, with dead people, and ghosts, so there has to be a cemetery. In fact, wait, the reason why there is no seamlessness is that Niffenegger took that connection for granted and didn’t even try to build on it. Remove the cemetery, and you have a less cluttered novel, maybe even a marginally better one.

[5] What Happens (II). [Will try to make points 5, 6, and 7 as ambiguous as possible so it's sort of Spoiler-Free.] Stupid Little Kitten of Death. Little Miss Oh I Don’t Want To Be Under My Twin’s Oh-So-Tyrannical-Rule So Hm Let’s See I’ll Ask that Smarmy Ghost If She Can Help Out. Oh Whoops. Oh My Goodness Oh Shit Oh NO You DI-INT! FOR SERIOUSLY NOW, YO–BODY SNATCHING?! [6] What Happens (III). Ooooh big dark horrible secrets. What CAN You Repeat That I Need To Make A Diagram. What is happening? WHO ARE YOU WOMAN? I DON’T UNDERSTAND. Ooooh Jack makes an appearance and he knew all along. Dude even called it a game, what, are you listening to yourself? [7] What Happens (IV). This is a book that refuses to end. I THOUGHT IT WAS OVER WHY WON’T YOU END?

At least–and this is a compliment–they all deserved what they got. Yep.

[8] The Tone, The Language, The Structure. Gah. The exposition on the twins’ (two sets) relationship with each other, with everybody else, read like a cheap Alice Hoffman (on her better days) knock-off. By the end of the book, it was just a V.C. Andrews attempting to make its $5M advance. The language teetered on extremes: overwrought (Elspeth, Robert), and lackluster (Julia, Valentina). The scenes where the tone and language were at its most accomplished was those first couple of pages detailing Edie’s reading of her mail, and, of course, Martin and Marijke.

I grew annoyed at the episodic manner of the “chaptering”–huh, in the writing of this novel, Niffenegger wouldn’t recognize a chapter if it built a tomb around her. It was, again, too lazy, too I Can’t Write Long I’ll Stick To Rushed Little Scenes That Clutter And Leave A Bad Taste In My Mouth.

[9] The Acknowledgments. Just saying. I’m a person who reads the book from cover to cover–the blurb, the flaps, the reviews, the little epigraphs and dedications. So yeah, I read the Acknowledgements. I wanted to write every single person on that list and ask them, “Dude. Why’d you let her do it? Why? What does she have on you?”

*

I think you all got what I was trying to say.

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33 comments

  1. What a review. If you could see me right now, I am applauding you. You have courage to write an honest review and I appreciate that. And no, I’m not saying that just because I didn’t like The Time Traveller’s Wife.

    I had thought about giving this book a read because I love the idea of a gothic story and I love the setting. But maybe I’ll wait for a library copy, if I read it at all.

    Thanks for your review!

    1. Thank you for reading; because I tried, but couldn’t keep the review short, so thanks for trudging with me. :) I guess my reactions to this book was compounded by the fact that a lot of online blogs were either raving or lukewarm-to-raving about it.

      Again, more thank yous, and you’re welcome. :)

      1. Sasha, I found that a lot of people were either raving or lukewarm about “Time Traveler’s Wife” as well – – I couldn’t wait to pick that up because I absolutely love time travel themes and I was sorely disappointed.
        Perhaps Audrey Niffenegger’s writing style just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea?
        Regardless, I appreciate honest reviews. I like at least having an idea what I’m getting into – – life is too short for books that aren’t for you!

  2. Whew, that was a huge book rant! Well, that settles it. After your review and the one at Bookmarked!, this novel will just have to be trashed from my wishlist. Thanks for saving me some time and dough.

    1. An incredibly long book rant, yes — sorry about that. :} I’m glad I swayed you, haha. So, you’re welcome, and thank you for dropping by.

  3. Would it have been easier to just close the book after page 50 and leave it on the shelf? Less grief, I say.

    1. I couldn’t. Less grief, yes, but I’ve got a little OCD in me too: I need to finish a book. The novel’s also compelling, in that it’s like a terrible prank unfolding and you know you need to turn away, but it’s just fascinating.

      Also, I needed to finish the book because I need to know I’m on good standing when I write a review that disagrees with a lot of the reviews out there.

  4. lol wow, you must have really disliked this book. However, good for you for posting an honest review. It’s greatly appreciated. Now I’m not so sure about it. Perhaps it’s better if it’s being read for free and not bought. I might give it a try anyway but not anytime soon. thanks for the info.

    1. Haha, it surprised even me how appalled I was with this book. :) Of course, these are just my two (thousand) cents’ worth of thoughts — but I really do strongly suggest that people find something else to read. :) Maybe just wait for Niffenegger’s next novel?

      Thank you for dropping by. :)

  5. Frankly, I just tell myself that all the characters were secretly on crazy pills and that seems to dilute the rising sensation of disappointment I feel whenever I think about it.

    It’s nice to know my review isn’t the only one that’s not quite so nice, haha. What a rant! Bravo!

    1. In that case, the Noblins and the Pooles hi-jacked a crazypill pharmacy and had a crazypill-popping extravaganza. :) I’m taking a peek at your blog right now; very much like the “(First impression: GORGEOUS cover.) / (Initial reaction after I finished: “Oh. Okay.”)” bit. :)

      The rant *did* get a wee bit carried away, haha. Thank you for dropping by. :)

      1. Haha! :) I definitely think there was some pill popping involved behind the scenes. Had to be! But I racked my brain for anything else to say about the ending and I was left with absolutely nothing. “Oh. Okay.” seemed to fit the bill nicely. I think I stared at the book for a few minutes thinking it was all a dream and I could get those few hours back, but alas.

        It may have been long but I enjoyed it immensely! :)

  6. Hi Sasha. Boy did you hate this book. And I thought I was disappointed in this book! :D

    But yeah, sometimes we feel so much when we read it’s hard to contain the emotions the book elicits out of us.

    1. It felt SO good getting all that out, haha.

  7. Kudos to you for writing such an honest review! I’ve been wondering about this one, because I read The Time Traveler’s Wife and thought it was ok, but was hearing nothing but great things about Her Fearful Symmetry. I’m glad to find a dissenting voice. Sometimes all the hype bothers me!

    Thanks for the review!
    Natalie

    1. Hi Natalie. :) I hope I didn’t give the impression that my dissenting voice was for the principle of the thing, that I’m doing it to be contrary (I’ve gotten emails that basically tell me that no one loves me, haha). Still, I want to say what I mean when it comes to books — there are too many things in life we (I) sidestep. That said, it feels SO GOOD to get that review out of my chest, haha.

      Your welcome! And thanks so much for dropping by this young young young flailing site. :)

      Yours,
      Sasha

  8. LOL sorry, I’m definitely going to ignore you and read the book as planned! That’s why I haven’t read all of your review (yet) btw. But I did get the message! Or maybe not, considering.

    1. Ignore away! :) We can compare notes. :p

  9. Interesting! I’ve signed up for this book on an international bookray through Bookcrossing so I won’t be spending any more than what it costs to send on to the next person. I am like gnoegnoe, I still want to read it so I haven’t read the detailed part of the review but I loved what I did read of it. It’s hilarious – you rant so well :)

    Cheers :)

    1. Hello! :) Read ahead, although I said NODON’TREADTHEBOOK, haha, it’s just a suggestion–just my views, after all. And, like I said to gnoegnoe, let’s compare notes! :)

  10. Fabulous review! You said it all! And much better than I did!

    1. Aw shucks. I was just more vitriolic, haha. But thank you! :)

  11. Great to find someone else who didn’t like this book. I thought my review was harsh till I read yours!
    I agree, it was awful, awful, awful!

  12. candletea · · Reply

    Serving around bookblogs I often notice people apologizing for reviews of books they hated – I usually enjoy them, I like an angry rant. And wow, did yours live up to the expectations. I was actually planning on doing a read-along of the book in May, but Í’ve been uncertain about joining since January. I did really like the Time Traveler’s Wife, but all I hear are people being left with mixed feelings or dislike towards the book. There seems to be something about the ending that annoys everyone. It kind of makes me curious to see what it is, but I don’t think I want to spend 20 euros on it just to see why people dislike a book so much. I’ll wait.

    On a random note: I once had to read a book about witchcraft in 17th century Scotland and one of the suspects was named Elspeth. I remember thinking that it was a weird name, but that “it’s from a historic source, so maybe it was a normal name at that time”. Using the name in contemporary fiction just seems a bit too much.

    1. Obviously, haha, I intensely disliked this book. But I was up all night reading it–it became a game at some point: What ridiculous thing will Niffenegger pull out next?

      I’ve received emails about this post, expressing disapproval as to why I had to write so rantily, why I even bothered to read the book. At the time this book was released, the hype was just overwhelming, and I really felt that this book didn’t deserve all that. I was called an ogre for this post, so I’m glad you appreciate it, haha.

      Re names–true, there’s a stock image that comes with names like Elspeth. Also, I think I mentioned that here in my country, the name Valentina is part of pop culture. She’s the name of the villainess of a comic book, one patterned after Medusa. So imagining the mousy character but with that disruptive reference was just funny for me. :p

    2. No, Elspeth is still a normal name in England. Not very common but definitely still in use. I have several friends called Elspeth, and a generation ago it would have been even more common.

  13. [...] What if I loathed it? What if it was a Bad Book? [I think of Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry, which I ripped a new one.] But I, being neurotic, eventually I liked it a lot by the time I’d replaced it on my shelf. [...]

  14. I haven’t read the book and I have no particular plans to, but I just wanted to point out that Elspeth is a perfectly normal, if not precisely common, name in England. Especially a generation ago but even today I know several Elspeths aged between 25 and 45. So, I’m sorry it didn’t work for you but I think Niffenegger was perfectly entitled to use it.

    1. Thanks for the info, Ros. When candletea and I were talking about our iffiness with the usage of the name, I think it was just that–an iffiness that prevented (me) from accepting the name. I live in the Philippines, and what experience I’ve had with the name Elspeth comes from history books and medieval England. I frankly don’t know how my preconceptions about the name came about, so that’s a guess, haha.

      So, again, thanks for giving us more information on the viability of the name being used by a writer. It was basically this reader–and one other–whose impressions and notions of “Elspeth” found the usage problematic. A personal bias, so to speak.

  15. can you believe she got a 5 million dollar advance for it and it took 3 months for this book to sell 25,000 copies?

    1. Oy. Yeah, I’d heard that. That was just unbelievable. So much money for so feeble a book. :'( I don’t understand publishing sometimes, hahaha.

  16. [...] a lot of you have reasonable cause to believe that I have a personal vendetta against the author [for the record, NO], I am just to [...]

  17. I just finished this book and I am so angry that I had to get online and see if anyone agreed with me. This book was so bad I think Audrey Niffenegger must have a twin who wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife and then Audrey stole her identity and wrote this p.o.s. You are very right in comparing it to a V.C. Andrews story.

    At the beginning I kept thinking that the childish way the young twins acted was disgusting, then I thought, okay, we are being shown that they are acting this way because people aren’t supposed to act that way, but then NO, everyone was totally childish but Martin and Marijke the end. Argh. Elspeth…so disturbing.

    The thing is, if I had been told ahead of time it was really a horror story and not a gothic romance I would be fine with it. Anyway, thanks for being honest. Just wish I had found this before I wasted two days reading the book.

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