Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

As you all know, The Time Traveler's Wife is one of my top-five favorite books, and back in the summer of 2007 -- about a month before I stopped working for The Man -- I had the great pleasure of meeting the novel's brilliant and quirky author, Audrey Niffenegger. She gave a speech at the Chicago History Museum, and my motivation to get published was reignited after hearing about the ups and downs of her writing journey.

I had been utterly shocked to learn that she'd gotten thirty-six rejection letters from agents. I mean, hers was one of the best books I've ever read, and so I sat in the audience thinking, "Good God, how could anyone not be immediately sucked in to her story? How could her publishing rollercoaster ride possibly bode well for the rest of us aspiring authors who don't have nearly as killer of an idea?" But instead of losing all hope for my own book, I just reset my expectations and made peace with the fact that the process was probably going to take significantly longer than I'd hoped.

And it did.

Fast forward to the end of August 2009 -- more than two years after I saw Audrey speak about The Time Traveler's Wife and had left Corporate America to attempt to start a writing career (and yes, I know, I know, I still need to finish my Book-Writing Timeline...). My agent called with news that he'd sold my book to Wiley. A month later, I was in the depths of working with a lawyer to review my contract, and had to back out of plans with my friend CM to attend a signing event for Audrey's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. I was desperately sad to miss it, especially because I felt like it would've been cosmically cool -- like a bookend experience of sorts -- to be able to hear Audrey speak again just as I was officially starting down the path of becoming a published author. But it just couldn't work out that evening.

CM, however, still went. And she bought a copy of Audrey's second book for me. When she went to get it signed, she shared that I'd just gotten a book deal and was bummed not to be able to attend the event because I'd enjoyed her presentation in 2007 so much. Apparently Audrey acted genuinely excited about my news -- not like she remembered me or anything, but just truly happy to hear that one of her fans was going to be writing a book of her own. And so this is what she inscribed on my copy of Her Fearful Symmetry:

In case you can't make it out, it says: "For Erika, with best wishes on the occasion of her book deal." How cool is that?!?! If you've ever heard her speak then you know that the wording of her message to me is her trademarked mix of offbeat and slightly more formal than you might expect. And as she considers herself first and foremost a visual artist, it was no surprise that her handwriting is gorgeous. (I'd gotten The Time Traveler's Wife signed in 2007, but she didn't write a note with it so it didn't elicit quite the same thrill.)

So I had the book in my possession when it first came out... but, alas, no time to read it. But now, finally -- after almost two more years passed -- I am proud to say I finished it.

When I saw Audrey speak in 2007, she was in the midst of writing Her Fearful Symmetry, was living in London, and had taken a gig giving tours at the famous Highgate Cemetery, as that where her new story was based. Although she admitted to being nervous about the overwhelming expectations for her follow-up novel, she was of course too polite to mention the amount of her advance. But I'd read it was $5 million. Talk about pressure! (To give you some perspective, my advance was waaaay less than 1% of that figure, as are the vast majority of advances. The $100,000 advance Audrey received for The Time Traveler's Wife was also ginormous. Imagine how she felt when she received fifty times that figure for her follow-up. Lordy.)

OK, so now onto the book. This is a tough one to review without giving key points away. Aside from the cemetery setting and the fact that Audrey had mentioned the book was going to be about twins, I knew nothing going into Her Fearful Symmetry. And I strongly believe this is the way anyone else should approach the novel as well. Therefore I will only describe the plot very generally, and then mention a few of my overall reactions before leaving you to decide whether or not you think it'll be worth your time.

I enjoyed approximately 7/8 of the book. Once again, Audrey created a world and characters that I immediately wanted to spend time with and learn more about. The way the twins were described made them seem like almost otherworldly creatures -- and they're not just normal twins, they're mirror twins. That means one of the girls -- in this case, the meeker and prone to illness Valentina -- has all of her organs on the opposite side of where they should be. The dominant and more protective twin, Julia, doesn't have this problem, though she does seem to be plagued with mental issues. The main one being that she literally can't stand to be apart from Valentina. Ever. That uber-creepiness is a better conveyed in this alternate cover to the left that I found online when preparing this post. I can just see Saoirse Ronan playing the twins if the book ever gets adapted for the big screen. She can look just like she did in Hanna.

The twins are pretty much useless -- they've dropped out of college and are living with their parents in Lake Forest, Illinois, doing jack squat. But then they are bequeathed their aunt Elspeth's apartment in London, located next to Highgate Cemetery. The only condition of ownership is that their parents aren't allowed to step foot in the place. See, Elspeth and the twins' mom, Edie, were also twins, and had a falling out decades ago that remains a mystery to the family. The twins only saw Elspeth once when they were babies, and have no memories of her.

But since Valentina and Julia have literally nothing else to do, they decide to give the UK a whirl for a year, move into their dead aunt's place, and see how it goes. We get to meet two of the other people in the apartment complex as well: Martin, a crossword-puzzle creator who cannot go outside because of his crippling OCD; and Robert, who was Elspeth's much-younger romantic partner, and who just so happens to have all of her personal diaries that most likely contain the secret she and Edie have been hiding. From the beginning there is a strong indication that something is afoul with the whole situation.

The 1/8 of the book that I didn't like was all at the end, which was predictable but at the same time extremely lazy and disappointing, if that makes any sense. While I found all of the characters intriguing and I was quickly drawn into the story, I was in no way moved by Her Fearful Symmetry like I was with The Time Traveler's Wife. I wanted Clare and Henry to find happiness so badly -- I was rooting for them so hard -- and therefore I was a freaking MESS with TTTW came to a close. There were no such emotions tied to the twins' saga. Though I thought all of the characters in HFS were interesting and I was compelled to keep turning the pages, no one in the story was particularly likable. And that's about all I can say without ruining anything. Do I think the book's worth reading? Yes. Just be prepared to get angry about the ending.

The comments will be a Spoilers Allowed Zone, so if you have read Her Fearful Symmetry and would like to add your own thoughts, you know what to do. I skimmed through some of the reviews on Amazon and was not surprised to see that Audrey's fans were very much split into thirds -- the Loved Its, the Hated Its, and -- like me -- the Despised the Ending But Otherwise Mostly Liked Its.

- e


Carla Hays said...

Erika -

Like you, I LOVE TTTW by Audrey Neffeneger! It was an amazing book, and it totally made sense when you figured out the "Time Travelling Disorder" that Henry was afflicted with. It was heart-breaking and exhilarating all at the same time, because you bought into it all, and went right along with all the meetings with Claire as a child - a situation that could in all reality, be downright creepy when you think about it!

HFS was different in a good way. The story was intriguing and original, and, again, caused one, as a reader, to let reality fly out the window so ghosts in drawers were acceptable. :) The characters were well fleshed out, and easy to like or hate, and maybe I'm just naive or something, but I was surprised at the way it all turned out, and don't remember feeling let down at all. In fact, as I was reading, I would relate parts of it to my husband and son, and they got to where they wanted to know what was going on when they saw me pick it up. :)

Great review, and so amazing that you got to meet Audrey, and the note she wrote to you is priceless! Congrats on your success!


Unknown said...

I love that alternate cover you found! Way better than the hardcover or the paperback that you featured. Those covers don't really GO with the book to me -- at all.

I agree that I didn't connect with the characters in the same way as TTTW, but this is a book that I find myself continuing to think about.

And Yikes -- $5 mill????

Krystal said...

The Time Traveler's Wife is one of my favorite books - in the top 5 if you count the entire Harry Potter series as one. :) Anyway, I went out and bought Her Fearful Symmetry right after it was released. I couldn't wait to read AN's newest novel, and of course I had high expectations since TTTW was so good.

I think you pretty much summed up my feelings that none of the characters were particularly likeable - except maybe Martin. I did enjoy his quirkiness. I loved being intrigued by the Big Secret and eerie quality of the story. The final reveal about the twins' true mother is a nice twist. It's been awhile, so I can't remember if I was shocked or if it was predictable for me. When I first finished, I was disappointed about the ending with Robert leaving Elspeth. But after I let it soak in some, I decided Elspeth got exactly what she deserved. She was so selfish and manipulative.

Now that it's been a couple years, I think HFS is worth reading and definitely has some interesting discussion points. It's a good book club book.

P.S. Have you read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield? The writing is excellent and it has the same eerie feel that HFS does. But the ending is much more satisfying. :)

Life Is A Road Trip said...

Oh, TTTW is also one of my very favorite books! I will have to read this. Thanks for the review.

rebecca said...

E -

Completely agree with your assessment. I actually read the book in one sitting recently (on a long layover), which was an interesting experience. Very much unlike TTTW, I wasn't particularly invested in any of the characters here. They were cool and quirky, but I sort of didn't care what happened to any of them. I don't tolerate laziness too well, and kept wanting the girls to DO SOMETHING. Actually, I would have loved to hear more about Martin and how finally going into the outside world worked out for him. Also, the ending was too creepy for me (in a NOT good way).

Thanks for the review! Since we share an equally (crazy) high level of love for all things Lost, I trust you on most else.


maikib said...

I agree whole-heartedly with your review; I wanted so much to love this book because I loved TTW; and although I read the whole thing pretty quickly and with gusto, there was not one character that I liked, or I related to... and in fact, I finished pretty disgusted by the three "main" characters (twins and aunt) in general. that being said, in a weird way, I still do like the book... i couldn't put it down when I was reading it, and i wanted to know what happened to the characters... so i guess that means something. plus, it ignited a bit of a fascination with highgate cemetary (i love cemetaries anyway-- not in a morbid way, but in a historical way). so i guess then, i did like it?