Newest Review: ... and the joy and pain of love. If you look at Her Fearful Symmetry logically, it's fair to say that nothing much really happens. To say th... more
Her Fascinating Sequel
Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger
Member Name: SWSt
Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger
Advantages: Interesting characters and setting; gripping despite nothing much happening
Disadvantages: Loose ends often left flapping for long periods
Her Fearful Symmetry is the "difficult second album" from Audrey Niffenegger. After the phenomenal worldwide success of The Time Traveller's Wife, expectations were sky high and inevitably some people were disappointed. This has been reflected in reviews both at the time and since. Some people love it; others find it deeply disappointing.
Her Fearful Symmetry muses on the issues of death and duality. When Elspeth dies in London, she leaves her flat and all her money to the twins of her own, estranged twin sister. The will stipulates that the twins must live there for at least 12 months and their parents cannot enter the flat. Meanwhile, Elspeth is still living in her flat as a ghost, desperate to communicate with the twins and former lover Robert, who lives downstairs.
Much of the book is shrouded in mystery, raising more questions than it answers for a long time. Why were Elspeth and her twin sister estranged? What happened to drive them apart for ever when they had once been so close? Is Elspeth seeking revenge vicariously through her sister's daughters or is she seeking to help them? Along the way, it muses on cheery subjects such as the nature of death and the afterlife, the joy and despair of close family ties and the joy and pain of love.
If you look at Her Fearful Symmetry logically, it's fair to say that nothing much really happens. To say that it has a gentle pace is something of an understatement and I suspect that this is a source of frustration behind many of the negative reviews. I got to around page 120 and realised so far nothing had happened beyond the fact that Elspeth had died and the twins had moved to London.
On the face of it, this should be really boring stuff. How can you write so much around so little? Well, if I knew the answer to that one, I would also be a multi-million best-selling author. The simple fact is that Niffenegger is a wonderful observer of human nature. The characters she creates are fascinating; they feel like real people in a way that characters in novels rarely do. At times, you feel like a voyeur, spying on the lives of these people without them knowing you are there. Niffenegger creates characters which fascinate. Even though nothing much happens, you become engrossed in what they are doing and saying.
She also (as in The Time Traveller's Wife) has a knack for blending the fantastical with the mundane. Because characters are well written and the settings believable, you never question the more outlandish elements of the plot; they just seem right for this book. Niffenegger creates a setting which is both commonplace to our everyday experiences (and so instantly recognisable) and a little skewed (and so interesting).
It's probably fair to say that the central plot is not that complex. From a fairly early stage I had a reasonable idea of where I thought this one was heading and I was more or less correct. For once, though, this doesn't matter. If you accept the slow pace of the narrative and the welcome focus on characters, you will see this mild predictability as a benefit, rather than a hindrance. The plot is interesting, but it is there to serve the characters, not the other way around. The fact that it is straightforward means that you don't have to concentrate on it too hard, but can enjoy prying into the private lives of the oddball individuals who inhabit this corner of London.
Some themes do appear a little undeveloped. The relevance of some become clear as the book progresses, but there were a few which I thought either never got the attention they deserved or which didn't quite came together with the rest of the main plot. Threads are left dangling or ignored for long periods of time before being picked up again and this was slightly frustrating.
Perhaps the most disappointing element is the ending. After almost 300 pages of surprisingly engaging (non-)events, it rather fizzles out. As with so much modern literature, Nieffenegger relies on multiple endings to tie up all the loose ends and close off character arcs. Whilst there is nothing particularly wrong with this, her decision to provide something approaching a happy ending is a mistake in my view and the more upbeat ending jars with the gloomier tone of the rest of the book.
Priced at around£5 to buy new (paperback or Kindle) this can be picked up a lot cheaper in second hand shops. Personally, whilst you're always best paying as little as you can for a book, I would say that £5 is a fair price. It's a book I enjoyed and one I can see myself reading again.
As a modern twist on the ghost story and an in-depth look at the lives of a group of slightly dysfunctional people Her Fearful Symmetry makes for an interesting read. It might not be quite as deep or clever as it sometimes likes to think it is, but it is nevertheless a fascinating book. Be warned, though: it is very much a Marmite book. For every positive review like this one, you will find at least one person that hated it.
Her Fearful Symmetry
Vintage, Reprint edition, 2010
© Copyright SWSt 2013
Summary: An interesting combination of the fantastical and the mundane