Monday, October 18, 2010

If You've Only Got One Novel In You, Quit While You're Ahead: Her Fearful Symmetry Flops!

The Good: Moments of nice prose, Thorough in setting details.
The Bad: Obsessive with the Highgate Cemetery details, Lousy characters, Poor narrative development, Cliche story, Unsurprising
The Basics: A complete letdown, Audrey Niffenegger abandons any sense of romance, mystery or intrigue to break up her ghost story with excruciating levels of detail about Highgate Cemetery, London.

Every now and then, I am surprised by circumstances around me. Last year, right around this time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Audrey Niffenegger had a new novel out. My wife and I were out at the bookstore and I saw it, oohed and ahhed and my wife looked at me with that "Should I get it for you?" look. I told her, "no," I would get it out of the library first. Then, I got two new surprises. The first was that my wife had never seen a book where the statements from critics were about a prior work, not the book-in-hand. I explained to her that this often happens when the author had a phenomenal first novel and the next one was rushed to press. It also happens when early buzz about the novel was nowhere near as good as the first book's praise. The second surprise for me was that no one had reviewed Her Fearful Symmetry on the site I used to write for.

I had a theory about that. While it was entirely probable that reviewers here have not yet finished reading the book, it was equally probable that no one wants to say what I, who had finished reading the book by that point, was about to write: this is a surprisingly bad novel. I'll admit openly; I was professionally jealous when I read Audrey Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife (click here for my review!). It is (outside one page) a perfect novel. Niffenegger is writing in her first novel at a level it took until my third novel to write at. So, if anything, I was eager when I sat down to read Her Fearful Symmetry and as I reached the conclusion of the book, I realized I was having the inverse reaction to what happened when I read The Time Traveler's Wife. When I read that book, I made time for it, squeezing it in between classes I was teaching. While I read Her Fearful Symmetry, after the first fifty pages, I kept returning to the book as if it were a chore. This novel might well be the best example of a sophomore slump that I've found in recent years.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a convoluted, but not terribly complex, novel about twins, a cemetery and family secrets. While The Time Traveler's Wife was complex and compelling, Her Fearful Symmetry is stylistically sloppy and devoid of the character resonance that made Niffenegger's debut so successful and enjoyable to read. Told in a fractured way (at least her first novel made sense to have events out of order), Niffenegger weaves a tale of two sets of twins and the process by which the younger ones learn about their mother and aunt. The bottomline is that it does not take long before readers realize that they don't care about any of the characters, their personal histories or their fates.

With the death of Elspeth Noblin, the Poole twins Julia and Valentina come into a rather significant estate. In a fairly classic machination, Elspeth's will calls for both twins to live in her flat in London for a year before selling it, with her partner, Robert, living below them. While Edie - the twins' mother and the twin of Elspeth - feels excluded and her husband, Jack, feels relieved, the twins head off to London to see what life there is like and meet the conditions of the will, on the surface to have money for college when the year is up and they sell the house.

Once there, though, they begin to piece together the sordid history of Edie, Elspeth, Robert and Jack. Martin, a neighbor who has been abandoned by his wife (who cannot take his obsessive compulsive disorder any longer), assists the pair and begins to find himself drawn to Julia. As Valentina and Robert become focused on Elspeth communicating with them through a Ouiji board, Julia's relationship with Martin becomes complicated for several reasons, including the return of his wife, Marijke.

Set it in contemporary times - there are references to President Bush and the internet - Her Fearful Symmetry fails to resonate for three big reasons. The first is that none of the characters truly pop, the second is that Niffenegger is obsessed with setting authenticity and third, the contrived plot never feels like it is going anywhere. At least in the last problem, the novel is exactly what it seems; Her Fearful Symmetry is 401 pages of absolute, convoluted pointlessness.

On the character front, there are two stories being told, the history of Edie and Elspeth (and rather unsurprisingly, the role of Jack in their history together) and the developing story of Julia and Valentina. Julia and Valentina's story begins to mirror the story the deceased Elspeth is relaying through the Ouiji board and given the title of the book and having two sets of twins, this is almost painfully obvious. The story of Edie and Elspeth's falling out over Jack and their varying ambitions is passe and surprisingly dull. Niffenegger fails to draw the readers in because the characters continue to think revealing thoughts that allude to what are supposed to be the big reversals of the novel.

But because Julia and Valentina are the primary protagonists, the reader suffers through their bored sojourn into the lives of their parents and here is where the novel truly falls down. On page 32, the twins are described as thoroughly unambitious. The chapter describes how they lay about on Saturday morning watching reruns of This Old House before finally describing quite specifically how they are mirror twins. Here, readers get a hint of Niffenegger's narrative flavor when she writes such things as "They were twenty years old, on this winter Saturday. Julia was the older twin by six (to her, very significant) minutes" (33). But the sense of flavor and richness for the characters in the novel is almost entirely gone by the time the lines "Neither had any tattoos. Valentina thought of herself as awkward, and she wished that she had Julia's splendid air of belonging. In truth, Valentine looked fragile and this attracted people to her" (34) come up. After this sense of characterization is established, the book quickly departs from it.

Julia, characterized as aggressive, is indeed more forthright and she goes after what she wants more than Valentina does. But the setup undermines the entire rest of the novel. Both women are established as very smart but very lazy. As a result, they have high SAT scores, but low grades and in their twenties, they are just hanging out. This is all fine and it vividly establishes the characters for the rest of the book. The problem is, the rest of Her Fearful Symmetry occurs in defiance to the characterization. Julia and Valentina arrive in London and they are almost instantly transformed into completely different characters.

In London, the twins become family detectives investigating their family's history and learning about Edie and Elspeth. Valentina becomes especially dogged in using the Ouiji board and while all of this is as close to as interesting as the book ever gets, it makes no sense. Suddenly relocating makes the two women everything they were not in the United States and there is not a satisfactory reason given for the change. Instead of simply sitting around their new swanky flat in London, they become engaged with the world and it does not ring true given how monolithically dull they are before they go there.

And another thing: Niffenegger, through Elspeth and asides about things like the (younger) twins' SAT scores characterizes Julia and Valentina as incredibly smart, even if they are lazy. But far from it, they are written to sound like Valley Girls with Valentina having to remind Julia that the English speak English in order to cut through her sister's metaphor. The level of diction and the emotional immaturity of the two protagonists is disturbing and incongruent with their characterization.

As for Robert, his love story is very much nothing new from Niffenegger. As he clings to Elspeth's memory and slowly reveals his past to Valentina and Julia, he sounds unremarkable in most every way. Conversely, Martin is an easy character to empathize with at the beginning of the novel. But as the story progresses, even Martin becomes a very standard "confused guy in a relationship" character. His role is almost a cliche and his obsessive compulsive disorder takes the back seat to plot weirdness when he gets a toothache.

The most immediately problematic aspect of Her Fearful Symmetry is the way Audrey Niffenegger obsesses on Highgate Cemetery. Highgate Cemetery is near the flat Valentina and Julia have to reside in and it is where Elspeth is buried and where Robert still works. Highgate Cemetery in London is, indeed, a real place. Niffenegger apparently fell in love with it, worked as a tour guide there and uses Her Fearful Symmetry as a virtual pulpit to preach the greatness of the cemetery. The thing is, Niffenegger includes such a level of detail that it is distracting from the narrative she is telling.

Take for example, "A Tour Of Highgate Cemetery" (pages 157 - 170). This is a pointless and thorough description of notable landmarks in Highgate Cemetery that have little or nothing to do with the story. This comes on the heels of other chapters where working conditions, layouts and other aspects of Highgate Cemetery are being described. When Robert attends Elspeth's burial, the journey through the cemetery is so descriptive, readers will forget why they are there. My point here is this: as a writer of fiction, one needs to figure out what the story they are telling is. Niffenegger loves Highgate Cemetery and she wants to share that love with her audience. That's fine. Unfortunately, she convolutes the story she seems to want to tell - a history and description of Highgate Cemetery - with a pointless ghost story. Readers often feel like they are in the middle of a travel brochure called "All About Highgate Cemetery" and, frankly, unless one has a strong stomach for repetitive setting descriptions, they will find much of their time with this "novel" wasted.

Finally, the plot is very much what it seems; a cliche ghost story setup which will take the reader on a journey into the supposed paranormal. Niffenegger does not even make it interesting, though, as she breaks up the various characters and chapter with little sense of order. For sure, readers can easily see how the ghostly Elspeth is slowly revealing her story to the twins, but there is no finesse to how it is done and little in the way of dramatic intrigue to it.

Ultimately, fans of The Time Traveler's Wife or literature in general will be disappointed. The characters are virtually impossible to empathize with and the situations never get interesting because they are broken up by Niffenegger's obsessive desire to spread her knowledge of a place that is only peripherally involved in the story (we thought) she was telling.

For other, better, weird books, please check out my reviews of:
Inherent Vice - Thomas Pynchon
The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner - Stephanie Meyer
Orlando - Virginia Woolf


For other book reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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