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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

As an unabashed fan of TheTime Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger’s startling and original first novel, I was keen to read Her Fearful Symmetry, particularly having heard that the setting includes London’s Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger is a tour guide. London, cemeteries, AN’s imagination—how could such a book go wrong?

But I confess myself disappointed, as a certain dark wizard was once heard to say. The further I read, the more I uncovered elements that should’ve intrigued me—two sets of twins; a haunting; a dark family secret. But none of these elements excited me as they should, or at least not for a long while. Julia and Valentina are the 21-year-old twins who are named as the heir to their aunt’s estate—a considerable sum of money along with her London flat. Their dead aunt is their mother’s estranged twin, and the younger twins have never met her. So why does she leave them everything, stipulating that their parents never set foot in the flat? The twins puzzle over this as they pack up and move to London, having nothing better to do, even while Valentina longs to get a college degree. Her domineering sister has no interest in this idea, and the twins seem fated to do everything together.

It’s Valentina’s growing need for independence from Julia that fuels the story. Valentina would like to get a life of her own—marry, have children, have a career, but Julia is too selfish to allow Valentina any room to breathe (in fact, Valentina is asthmatic, not coincidentally). While this is an interesting conflict, the twins themselves are boring. For two thirds of the book, they lead a dull London life hanging around the flat and watching TV.  They eventually meet their flat neighbors: Robert, their dead aunt’s grieving boyfriend; and Martin, whose wife has recently left him after enduring twenty-odd years of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. The two men are far more interesting than the vapid twins, and even the dead aunt, who haunts the London flat, seems more lively than the girls.

So I slogged half-heartedly through most of the book in the hopes that it would improve and because, however it pales beside TTW, it’s still well written. Then the action abruptly picked up and I sped through the last 150 pages. Suddenly Robert and Martin emerged from their funks, the twins actually started doing something, and dead aunt Elspeth was helping to engineer a bizarre plan.  Some reviewers thought the characters acted—well—out of character in the last third of the book, and I agree. Some character details are revealed too late for me to quite believe them; other actions just don’t make sense. The very end of the book comes abruptly and seems just tacked on. But at least I was awake and glued to the page for those last dozen chapters.

Recommended? I’ll put it this way: I would much rather have checked this book out from the library than have requested it as a gift. Now I’m stuck with this hardback book that feels a bit extravagant for what it’s given me.