Her Fearful Symmetry.
Her Fearful Symmetry is Audrey Niffenegger’s sophomore effort after her first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, took the country’s book clubs by storm. And I have sat on this review a full week after finishing the book for my Facebook Book Club because I had no idea what to say about it or exactly how I felt. I would liken my response to this book as similiar to leaving a movie theater feeling as though the film hit you like a ton of bricks, and yet you weren’t sure if you liked it or were even satisfied. Still, Her Fearful Symmetry has stayed with me and I have been mulling it over in my mind, so it’s clearly not a bad book or I would have dismissed it outright.
The theme de jour is obsession, and man, do Niffenegger’s characters nail it with a vengence. There are two sets of twins- Edie and Elspeth, and Edie’s twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. Edie and Elspeth have had a falling out over a mystery event that gradually becomes clearer, and have not seen each other for twenty years. Still, when Elspeth dies of cancer in the beginning of the book, she leaves her flat to Edie’s daughters provided they come to live in London for a year, and that their parents do not come inside the flat. Elspeth’s place is along the border of Highgate Cemetary, which her younger lover, Robert, is writing his dissertation on, and so the scene is set for relationships that refuse to be severed at whatever cost- especially when Robert falls for Valentina while Elspeth’s ghost watches. Confused about the point? Well, read here, as I don’t want to get into all the details, especially as it’s nearly impossible to not give away the ending.
And maybe the confusing nature of even trying to describe the book is telling: the book is trying to do too much at once and convey too many messages. The Time Traveler’s Wife was meant to be about the triumph of love over time (whether you thought it accomplished this or not), and could be summed up as so. Exactly what Her Fearful Symmetry is meant to be about is less clear. It might be about love and death, or about being careful what you wish for, or how “We are never deceived; we only deceive ourselves” (Goethe), or the question of whether obsession still qualifies as love (i.e. is a stalker’s love real?). And somehow it manages to be about all of these things, but none of them well.
Reading the book itself became somewhat of an obsession for me, as I couldn’t put it down and finished in the day I bought it, and yet, the ending unsettled me. It wasn’t satisfactory, but the larger issue was that I didn’t know how to feel because none of the characters- with the exception of OCD Martin, the upstairs neighbor- is more than two-dimensional. The best part of the book really is Highgate Cemetary, which becomes it’s own character, and is endlessly fascinating. Or maybe I just like cemetaries and books about dead bodies.
Still, despite the mixed review, I’d be really interested to hear what other people got out of the book- there’s a lot to discuss here, and I’ve spent a week wondering if I missed exactly what made this book so awesome in other people’s minds. And this is why I’m mailing my copy to Sonika- just so I can be told if I’ve completely lost my right to call myself an English major or if I’ve still got it. At least I got that symmetry sounds like “cemetary.”