A 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- I’m really not usually this snarky. And this will be an incredibly difficult review to write.
On with it.
 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.
 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?
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.]
 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.
 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.
 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?!  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?  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.
 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.
 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.