Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Long a fan of the Time Traveler's Wife (yes, despite its maddening plot issues), I hesitated to pick up Audrey Niffenegger's new book, Her Fearful Symmetry, because, as a rule, I do not like ghost stories. I quite dislike them, in fact. Science fiction, yes; ghost stories, no. Now you know. But it haunted me in that way books will when you quite enjoyed their predecessors, and so I eventually succombed.

The concept of mirror twins, one twin per set perfectly reversed in body, including organ placement, added to the curiosity those of us born singular will always have for twins. Two sets of mirror twins form the book's core. Elspeth and Edie have been estranged since Edie's twin daughters, Valentine and Julia, were three years old. Layered atop the curious dual dualities is a thick swath of fairy dust in the form of the girls' estranged aunt Elspeth. Following her death to cancer, Elspeth leaves her London and a substantial sum of money to the twins, Valentina and Julie, with the meager request that the they live in a flat for one year. Robert, Elspeth's mourning boyfriend and aspiring historian of the cemetery they're soon to live alongside, is named a guide for the twins' London life. As usual, Niffenegger draws a sumptuous setting for her pivotal characters, living in the flat adjunct a posh historical cemetary called Highgate, and the story builds from that connectivity between the living and the dead.

The delicate side story of OCD-suffering Martin, a crossword puzzle composer, and his patient, harrowed wife Marijke is used to waylay the book's major plot, though it deserves its own book with detailed treatment instead.

Niffenegger writes the way most people breathe, the prose simply falls away from the page as you're reading. If you're anything like me, you'll be gaga over the plot and characters, drowning in the beauty of the scene and overall interestingness until midway through the book. The dialog and the nuanced characters, all is spot on. Which is why it's so frustrating when it all goes to shit.

Without ruining the plot's major surprises, Niffenegger appears to confuse even herself with the mirror twin idea, complete with a flimsy bait-and-switch plan that might lose you brain cells sleuthing for rational motivation. Niffenegger ignores several key points. First, she hints, through Robert, that ghosts are missing an integral component of humanity, suggesting a sinister intent. This is one-off line that doesn't play through to later portrayals — though it should have — that whispers a more cohesive direction for the plot. Second, there should have been more to the idea of mirror twins than a simple plot twist. It feels affectatious, and I'm angry at being manipulated by it and at Niffenegger for letting that lone concept skew the story.

What I've written here may be more confusing than helpful, as a review goes. It isn't that I don't recommend this book. It isn't even that I dislike it. Instead I feel disappointed in a motherly sort of way, like my baby won't learn to walk, dammit, despite being ohsoclose.

In the end, much of the Niffenegger's descriptive detail is wasted, imperiled later by the crippling and rapidly deflating twin epicenter. Her conclusions fail several of the characters and the book's lush setting, but also feel unfinished, shortsighted.

View the book at Barnes & Noble

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