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