Sunday, November 22, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audry Niffinegger

This book reads like a cross between the author’s first two books The_Time_Traveller’s_Wife and The_Three_Incestuous_Sisters. This is a story about two sets of twins-Elspeth and Edwina Noblin and Julia and Valentina Poole. Elspeth and Edwina are identical twins. Julia and Valentina (Edwina’s daughters) are symmetrical twins.

Elspeth and Edwina are estranged. When Elspeth dies of cancer, she leaves all her earthly possessions to Edwina’s daughters Julia and Valentina on the conditions that they live in her flat in London for a year and never admit their parents to it. The girls accept and move from their parents’ house in Illinois to the flat in London. A few months after the move, it becomes apparent to them and their neighbor (and Elspeth’s lover) Robert, that Elspeth is haunting the apartment.

I suggested in the first paragraph that this book was a cross between Niffenegger’s first two books. There are certain similarities between this book and The_Time_Traveller’s_Wife. In both stories the female lead is beautiful and rich and creative. Both stories are love stories and in both cases the male lead has a cool-but-quirky job. Henry is a librarian who works with rare books and Robert is a grad student studying (and volunteering at) Highgate Cemetery. Both stories have an element of the supernatural. And of course, both books involve older men and younger women.

The similarity between this book and The_Three_Incestuous_Sisters is that the relationship between Julia and Valentina, while not quite incestuous borders on being so. The two sleep in the same bed wrapped around each other and their relationship has to date, kept them from being seriously involved with anyone else because if one of the twins got a boyfriend (or even had sex) the other twin would be “left behind.”

A rule I learned in a creative writing class in high school is that for every one thing you tell the reader (“Valentina didn’t like the underground…She tried not to let Julia know that the Tube frightened her, but somehow Julia guessed.”) you must show the reader four other things through the characters’ actions. This book suffers from an excess of telling and not enough showing. This is partly because a good portion of the book takes place inside the characters heads. They state things to themselves (“If he met Valentina he would probably like her better. Everyone did.”) and we have to take their word for the truthfulness of these statements.

This book also suffers from a lack of sympathetic characters. Julia is holding her sister back by insisting that she not pursue an education or any interest. Martin has OCD, Robert displays a certain Humbert Humbertish creepiness. Elspeth is dead and not entirely benign and Valentina is willing to let her family (including her twin) think her to be dead in order to escape from her sister’s grasp.

The plot is interesting over all, although I feel that the first half or two thirds of the book is an introduction and some of the twists have a “I just pulled this out of my butt” feel to them.

I enjoy visiting the quirky worlds that Audrey Niffenegger creates-they’re full of artists and weirdos and people who genuinely love books. But the cast of characters in Her_Fearful_Symmetry is lacking in soul. I find it hard to believe that real people would do many of the things the characters do (particularly the two sets of twins). Perhaps that’s part of the point-maybe this book is a 400-page demonstration that Twins are Weird.

But perhaps I’m judging these characters too harshly. After all, most of the really weird/bad courses of action are taken by the twins when they’re in their early 20s. I don’t recall being over-burdened with good ideas myself at the age of 21.

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