Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in my 2014 TBR Challenge, which puts me right on track for a book a month. I requested this as a gift on the strength of Audrey Niffenegger's debut, but delayed it because I suspected it couldn't stack up. What a good instinct I have.

Her Fearful Symmetry is about twins and isolation and death. It starts with the death of Elspeth Noblin following a long illness. Her twin, Edie (short for Edwina) Poole finds out when Elspeth's lawyer contacts Edie's twins, Julia and Valentina, telling them they've inherited her apartment and a tidy sum of money, with strings attached. The apartment is across from Highgate Cemetery, about which Robert Fanshawe, Elspeth's grieving lover, is writing his thesis. When the twins move in, Valentina and Robert start to fall in love, until Elspeth's ghost lets herself be known.

The first two-thirds of this book are compelling, and promise a build to a strong finish. Unfortunately, the book devolves in the last third to an object lesson in how bad it is to be selfish. All of the characters choose selfishly, to everyone's detriment, including their own. If I could remove one trope from the literary canon, it would be characters who screw themselves over. I read the last several chapters with a growing sick dread, and wanted to throw the book when it played out exactly how I feared. Unlike in The Time Traveler's Wife, the ending isn't hopeful. It's just bleak. One character is celebrating her fate at the end, but it feels tacked on.

The book has a lot of missed opportunities. I understand the appeal of a sad ending to make it seem more poetic, but I hate watching characters develop into worse people throughout the narrative when I started out liking, or, at least, understanding them. The more I learned about Elspeth, the more I questioned Robert's initial devotion and why he didn't see through her earlier. I started out feeling sorry for Valentina and Julia, and wound up feeling they deserved one another. Even Martin, the character I liked best, does something unforgivable, and the narrative lets us guess just how deep his betrayal runs.

I don't insist that all characters are likable in a book, but I hate watching the inevitable fate they deserve unfold. It makes me embarrassed for them that they couldn't learn any other way.

If you liked The Time Traveler's Wife, I can't recommend this one. It tries to capitalize on the elements that worked in the earlier book, and instead stumbles all over itself in a clumsy narrative about terrible people. This is one of those reads that made me angry with its wasted potential. It had such a compelling premise and promising setting. That this was the result infuriates me.

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