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Consuming Culture: Review: Asymmetrical

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Asymmetrical


Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry has probably been my most looked-forward-to book of the year. I (like everyone else) loved The Time Traveler’s Wife. What I liked about it: the love story, the supernatural, the fact that you get so engrossed in the characters that you don’t care about the flaws or holes or plausibility of the time traveling. I knew that Her Fearful Symmetry was going to contain the same kind of supernatural storyline woven into the plot, and I was excited for the escape from reality.

Niffenegger’s second novel (6 years after her first one) involves two sets of twins: Elspeth and Edie, and Edie’s twin daughters, Valentina and Julia. Elspeth has just died of cancer and left her London flat to her two nieces whom she has never met. So when the inheritance kicks in as the girls turn 21, they decide to leave their home in Ohio and take their humdrum, unmotivated lives to London.

Valentina and Julia are the kind of twins that you look at and say, “Shouldn’t they have grown out of that by now?” They look the same, dress the same, but unbeknownst to the casual observer, they do not think the same. Though they have always led their lives “together,” things are changing. Julia wanted to go to London; Valentina did not. Valentina wants to go back to college; Julia does not. They struggle with their codependence and their desire to be apart, but ultimately, Valentina feels stifled by Julia and wants to lead her own life. While fighting their internal demons, they encounter some external ones as well. The twins learn that the ghost of Elspeth is trapped in the apartment, and they can communicate with her. Throw in the creepy setting of London’s Highgate Cemetery and an eccentric supporting cast, and we have ourselves a kind of ghost story.

The strongest part of this book is the setting. Niffenegger’s sense of setting is fabulous. She is so descriptive and has a skill of setting the scene to draw you in the mood and tone of the story. The secondary characters are also excellent. We meet Robert, Elspeth’s younger lover that lives in the flat below the twins, and Martin, a middle-aged OCD man who is determined to get better so he can get back his wife that left him. However, I was left with a lot of questions about relationships. For one, the author attempts to describe some kind of complex twin love that sounded frighteningly more sexual than it should, but she never took it far enough to really matter. The aspects of relationships that should’ve been deeply explored were not. I never felt too connected to most of the characters; they just didn’t have much depth, and I couldn’t really understand the logic behind their actions or emotions. Martin and his wife Marijke ended up having the most satisfying storyline of all.

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies, but at exactly page 306, I knew how this story would conclude. I didn’t even have that much desire to read more than just the last page. But I forged ahead, and yes, I was correct in my guess. I was left at the end just saying, “What?” A lot was left open, and I don’t mean “open to interpretation” open. I mean it just seemed like she got lazy and gave up. Audrey Niffenegger has proven herself to be a creative person, so I know she’s got it in her!

I couldn’t put down Her Fearful Symmetry. It was an engrossing read that I got through quickly. I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t know if I liked it. However, I’ve read several reviews that say this was the reviewer’s favorite read of the year, so to each her own, I guess.

What did you think? Did it live up to the hype for you?


Joanna M said…

Hey Kari,

I'm with you. I loved TTW but really didn't care for this book at all. All the characters were odd; there was definite possibility for a great story but I felt like the author never really wove them all into the story well enough. The Martin and Marijke plotline for example never really connected to the main story.

I actually really liked about the first 2/3 of the book but when the Little Kitten of Death and subsequent happenings began to unfold I was put off. I should have seen the ending coming, but I didn't and I really didn't like it. Probably the best part of the entire ending was the very last page. At least Robert had some sense.

Kari said…

Joanna – That's a great point you make. I was thinking the whole (and should've mentioned in my review) that while I loved the Martin/Marijke storyline, I don't see how it fit in with the rest of the story. As supporting cast members, they didn't serve much of a purpose to the overarching plot.

Matt said…

I'm just curious how you compare this book to Time traveler's Wife?

Diane said…

Great review. I am anxious to get to this one from my stack. i have not read Time Traveler's Wife.

Kari said…

Matt – I think it lacked the emotional depth of TTW. I just didn't care too much about what happened to them, nor did I feel like I really knew them and their relationships with each other.

softdrink said…

I enjoyed the book, but I wouldn't necessarily put it in a list of favorites. I had the same thought about the twins…matching clothes at 21 is just wrong!

And while I was glad Robert left at the end, I still wish he would have had the sense to leave about 200 pages before the end.

Kathleen said…

This one is still on my TBR pile. I almost bought it yesterday when I was at the airport and waiting for my plane (which was delayed). Now that so many have reviewed the book I think I will wait awhile. I hope I enjoy it as much as you did.

J.T. Oldfield said…

I just picked it up at Costco over the weekend, and can't wait to get to it!

BTW, I gave you guys an award!

farmlanebooks said…

I agree with you. This was a reasonable book, but it won't be making my 'top reads of 2009' list.

I think she was trying to be too clever. By struggling to write this in British English and showing off about how much she knows about Highgate I think she neglected the emotion which made TTW so special.

Let's hope she re-captures the magic for her next book.

Heather said…

"I couldn't put down Her Fearful Symmetry. It was an engrossing read that I got through quickly. I enjoyed reading it, but I don't know if I liked it."

That pretty much sums up how I felt about it. I just wasn't blown away by it like I was hoping to be. I kept feeling like I missed something and if I could just put my finger on it, it would all click into place, but it hasn't.

"…page 306, I knew how this story would conclude. I didn't even have that much desire to read more than just the last page. But I forged ahead, and yes, I was correct in my guess. I was left at the end just saying, "What?"

Yep. That pretty much sums it up. What? I was left shaking my head.

silverfysh said…

I just posted my own review of Her Fearful Symmetry on my blog:

I admit that mine's rather scathing. It was one of the worst books I've ever read. I disagree with you on her use of setting, though. I felt that it was unnecessary to the novel, and wasn't as skillfully employed as I wanted.

Please take a look see, if you want. 🙂

– Sasha

Consuming Culture: Review: Murder in the ‘Burbs

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Murder in the ‘Burbs


When I read Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner a few months ago, I had needed a nice, fun read after a horrible book I’d just read. This pretty much hit the spot. It has all the standard features of a chick-lit novel: New York City, passionate love (affair), job in some media or fashion field, problems are overly-dramatized but suck you in. While the chick-lit checklist is complete, this one takes a bit of a turn by becoming a mystery.

New-York-City-girl-turned-Connecticut-housewife Kate Klein discovers a dead neighbor with a knife in her back. This small glimmer of excitement leads her to start a full-on private investigation, digging up suburban affairs that eventually lead her to the passionate lover-that-never-was from her days as a city girl [go figure]. Typically, chick-lit novels are pretty damn predictable [which, of course, never stops me from reading them], but I like that this one had the mystery element to keep me engrossed. It had plenty of humourous scenarios and one-liners, particularly from the obligatory best friend, rich-girl-in-a-funny-way, sidekick character, Janie. An review calls Weiner an “endearing contemporary voice.” Agreed. I saw the movie version of In Her Shoes, which actually had substance as well. I should read some more of her books, because she doesn’t write total predictable, sappy, girly crap.

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The Five Borough Book Review: August 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fiction | Rosamunde Pilcher Is Beach Reading At Its Finest

Last summer when I was on vacation, I read Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home. The cover really looks like it’s a romance novel, but I assure you that it is not! Not that I minded that so much, though, because the cover just made it look like the perfect beach read that it was.

Last month when I was visiting home in Nashville and took a trip to McKay’s, I was determined to pick up another Pilcher book—any Pilcher book—for another great summer read. I opted for September, which was written five years before Coming Home but takes place about 40 years after and has equally as awful of a cover.

It is NOT an awful book, though! September takes place in the lush green landscape of Scotland sometime around what I can determine to be the 1980s. (It was written in 1990 and the narrative sounds rather ‘present’ as opposed to ‘past’.) Supposedly this is a very loose follow-up to her most popular, The Shell Seekers, but from what I’ve gathered, it only really has one character that sort of overlaps.

The Scotland in this story is one that still holds tradition close, especially in the upper echelon of society. It’s early summer in a rural Scottish town, and head matriarch, Violet Aird, is helping a neighbor plan a great big party for her daughter. Violet’s son Edmund is a businessman often away working, while his much-younger wife Virginia spends her days around the estate, caring for their 8-year-old son. Longtime friends of the Airds, Isobel and Archie (aka Lord Balmerino) are technically “rulers” of the land and estate, but declining income has brought them down to middle class, requiring them to open their home to vacationers during tourist season. Meanwhile, Edmund’s daughter Alexa has finally found a boyfriend in London (Noel Keeling; here’s where Shell Seekers comes in!); Archie’s free-spirited sister is debating a return to Scotland after decades away; and a mental patient returning home unnerves the entire family.

The great thing about this Pilcher book, like the last one I read, is that the tiny details don’t really matter. Pilcher writes with a style—a sweeping family narrative that has just the right amount of sentiment and drama; it’s never over the top with one or the other. You don’t need the details to get sucked in, and, frankly, you’ll probably forget most of them once you’ve finished. But with Pilcher, you don’t need to remember the details; the process of reading her books is simply enjoyable, and they have enough heft to keep you satisfied for a while. If you don’t even remember the characters’ names a week after turning the last page, you’ll at least recall, “Oh, I really enjoyed reading that. I should read more.”

**Note: The non-romance-y, legit-looking covers of several Pilcher books come from a 2005 re-issue by British publisher Hodder. This now makes sense why I can’t find them anywhere (yet, why are they default cover on Goodreads??).

Monday, August 20, 2012

On Growing Up

That night, lying in bed, I could not help wishing that there wasn’t so much sadness in growing up. It was all so confused in my mind. There had been the long, long days of being young and not wondering about tomorrow at all and thinking in a strange, forgotten child’s world. There were days when my thoughts were as mild as feathers and even an hour seemed like a long time. Then suddenly it was like turning a sharp corner—you were older and the things that counted when you were young didn’t count anymore at all, and looking back, you couldn’t even see them. Growing up crowds your mind with new thoughts and new feelings so that you forget how you used to think and feel.

—From Seventeenth Summer, Maureen Daly, pg. 218

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading Roundup: Revisiting Graphic Memoirs

I went through a graphic novel kick back in 2010 and found that I reaaaaally enjoy them, particularly graphic memoirs. Actually, I can’t even say I’ve read any graphic fiction; my entire graphic oeuvre is memoirs, but I think the two genres really lend themselves to each other. There’s something so much more personal about reading a story someone wrote and then seeing it through their eyes in the way they decide to show it to you.

This summer, I decided to revisit the graphic memoir genre because of two recent releases that caught my eye…

Way back when (only two years ago, so not incredibly long), I read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and absolutely loved it. Therefore I was beyond psyched to find out that she had a new book out, Are You My Mother? While Fun Home focuses much on Bechdel’s father and her own adolescence, Are You My Mother? puts the spotlight on the author’s mother and their own complicated relationship.

Here’s the thing about Bechdel—her books sometimes sound like a psychology lesson. Her use of language is something I commented upon back when I read Fun Home, but then it just seemed almost like a quirk of the author; the heavy use of language is like a humorous contradiction to the story’s comic panels. Are You My Mother?, though, reads like the notes from a deep psychological analysis–notes that no one but the patient and the psychologist should, or need to, read. And it was so meta. She’s writing about writing the book…you know, that sorta thing. Bechdel examines interactions with her mother, the development of her own love life, and her exploration into the literature of psychology. And frankly, it was mostly boring. It lacked the character intrigue and adolescent curiosity that came with Fun Home. And maybe that’s not Bechdel’s fault—I already knew most of her story from Fun Home, and I didn’t feel the need to be clued ito this part of her life. I’m sure writing this book must have been very therapeutic for Bechdel, and if she felt an immense sense of relief after writing this, good for her. I just didn’t need to read about it.

Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg’s To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story popped out at me one day in one of my local bookstores. While I’m considering this a graphic novel, it’s actually got a different format. It looks, upon first viewing, like a chunkster. And from the art on the cover, I expected a graphic memoir in the style of Blankets. But then you open it, and it’s all words with some pictures scattered throughout. It’s less graphic novel, more adult picturebook with illustrations coloring the pages.

Anyway, To Timbuktu is the story of two college kids from different schools who met while studying abroad in Morocco and then adventured through parts of the world together in the years immediately following graduation. This is my kind of story through which to live vicariously, because…helloooo….travel bug. Casey and Steven were both charming characters to get to know. Their recollections of experiences were honest but you never felt bogged down by their troubles; and they shared the little things that made each place and experience so special to them. Successful in inspiring world travel? Yes, indeed.

When you think about it, Casey and Steven’s story isn’t really anything special. Tons of recent grads do what they did—pack up and ship out while you still have the chance. But each and every person’s experience is special, because stories and experiences like these are so huge in shaping lifelong perspectives. And for someone like me, stuck at a desk everyday and dreaming of travel freedom, stories like these help tide you over until you do have the opportunity to pack up and ship out. If you liked Lucy Knisley’s French Milk and Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage, this is in the same vein.