Sunday, June 5, 2011

Random Book Review: "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger

Okay, I am probably the one and only person on Earth who didn't adore "The Time Traveler's Wife." I liked it alright-- interesting idea, love story with a unique hook, etc. Also, the last scene was worth the 200 pages of build-up (Interesting side note: I believe I read once that the last scene was Niffenegger's first. She built her whole book around it.)

Anyway, I didn't expect a all that much of "Her Fearful Symmetry," a ghost story, with a sort of twist-- part of it is from the ghost's point of view. It was on the scant shelf of audiobooks at the local library and so I picked it up.

There are a lot of interesting characters in the book. I really enjoyed Martin, the upstairs neighbor who suffers from seriously debilitating OCD, and his wife Marjike. The author also introduces an interesting pair of codependent "mirror twins", Julia and Valentina, who--aside from their fearful co-dependence-- seem to be suffering from a sort of prolonged adolescence and more than a touch of ennui. Valentina put me in mind of this:

There are many other characters as well, mostly well drawn and interesting.

The setting, in London outside of Highgate Cemetery, prompted me to look up actual pictures of the place. It's pretty amazing. See:

But--as you might already know-- I am working hard at teaching myself how to write the most engaging and twisty and interesting plot and "Her Fearful Symmetry" sort of fits into the 'what not to do' category.

First off, as Lynne Barrett said during one of the seminars I took at "The Muse" conference in April, all plot is by nature contrived. The trick is to come up with the most engaging and spectacular and naturally-right contrivance. The reader only notices the contrivance if it doesn't really work (I am paraphrasing here). Well, I definitely noticed in this novel. The plot feels forced-- characters doing things that seem quite out of character to move the mechanics of the plot forward. If Niffenegger hadn't done such a wonderful job of portraying the characters, perhaps I wouldn't have noticed this ...or if she hadn't swung for the fences in the stretching-the-bounds-of-realism category.

As the book moves toward its conclusion, it feels so rushed. Stuff happens and happens and happens but there is no time to get to the root or make sense of the seemingly extraneous twists.

There is almost no way to write about this book without giving up some monumental spoiler, so suffice to say: Engaging but with holes big enough to drive a Mini Cooper through.

There are some amazing moments though. I especially like the scene where James, a 90 some year old, describes waking in his room and seeing the ghosts of trees, or their shadows anyway, cast onto his bedsheets.

There is no doubt Niffenegger has a crazy-fertile imagination. It takes a certain fearlessness to come up with "Time Traveler" or "Symmetry," books that set about their own rules for the universe and stick to them. And she is clearly a talented writer. But in the end, the plot feels rushed and a bit um, contrived (and not in a good way).

Did you read this one? What did you think?


Donna said...

I enjoyed your book review. Have not read that book. I am also enjoying your blog. I am a new follower and look forward to reading more. I would love a visit/follow on my blog when you have a moment. Hope you enjoy your visit there. I, too, write a little about a lot; books and life. Donna

Rebecca said...

Great review, I'm a new follower. you can find and follow me back if you would like at

Marewolf said...

I read it and found it very disturbing (not in a good way!) and also rushed at the end.

I really loved the Time Travelers Wife, which was also sort of disturbing but in more of a bittersweet way. So, I was pretty disappointed with Her Fearful Symmetry.


Anne R. Allen said...

I'm the other person on the planet who didn't fall in love with The Time Traveler's Wife. I thought I might like this one better, but now...maybe not. Thanks for the review. Loved the Gorey picture!

Richard said...

My blog Amish Stories is having its first ever contest this week. The First prize winner will win 2 tickets to tour the farm where the 1985 move "Witness" staring Harrison Ford and Kelly Mcgillis was made in Strasburg,Pa . This farm is now Amish owned, and the family has given permission for folks to tour their farm. This may be the last time anyone will be able to walk and see the same things that Harrison Ford and the other actors saw during the making of "Witness". The Witness tour should last about 2.5 hours. In addition to the Witness farm tour tickets, 1st prize winner will also receive 2 tickets for Jacobs choice. There will also be a 2nd place prize, which will be 2 tickets for the Amish Homestead. Please go to My blog for contest details, and more information on the prizes. Richard from the Amish settlement of Lebanon county.

FranceRants said...

Love your honesty....and critical eye, for you're reading not only as a reader, but a writer too.

Have not read her books and probably won't.

I recently read a new fiction novel of a well known author and had to say was completely disappointed by the lack of imagination and cohesiveness of the plot, yet other readers prattled on about how wonderful it was....I wish I had the guts to review it as honestly as you did here!

Jenny Phresh said...

Thanks for the review! Very honest and interesting. I have to confess a deep, dark secret...I couldn't even finish The Time Traveler's Wife. Damned thing lost me. Now that I know there are some good things to come I ought to pick it back up again. I always try to finish a book, but I said long ago that life is too short to finish a book that doesn't grab you, no matter how many people praise it. There goes subjectivity yet again!

cleemckenzie said...

I liked the Time Traveler's Wife. Haven't read Symmetry. Loved your research into the cemetery. Eerie alright!

Thanks for the follow at the Write Game. It's always great to find a new name on my blog.

maryw said...

I'm enjoying catching up with you--as if! Never read Time Travelers, agree with you about the holes and the rush here and weren't there some almost laughable twists? But months later several scenes and the general unease and eeriness are still with me. Whereas I can forget a perfectly plotted book the minute I finish, if that's all it's got.

Perri said...

I agree, Mary-- I still retain the image of those twins in their matching clothes, the cool and creepy cemetery.