I didn't read it, so much as inhale it, breathing it into my lungs and keeping it there. I dreamed about it, I thought about it, I read and re-read bits of it, because I loved the way they made me feel. I just thought, and think, it was brilliant.
As for Her Fearful Symmetry, well, not so much.
Maybe it's because I'm a parent of identical twins. The story centres around Julia and Valentina Poole, the identical twin nieces of the late Elspeth, herself the identical twin of their mother, Edie. When Elspeth dies, having not spoken to her own twin since before they were born, she leaves them her flat in Highgate. They move in and meet a series of eccentric characters, from Robert, Elspeth's lover, to Martin, the OCD sufferer in the flat above.
So far, so interesting. But it just doesn't work. Niffenegger's clearly done a lot of research on Highgate Cemetery, which shows. In many ways the book is a hymn of love to the Cemetery itself, and it's perhaps the most convincing character as a result. Sadly she doesn't appear ever to have met either an British person, or an identical twin.
It's not just the little niggles: the flat is in a building called Vautravers Mews. All the characters, and the authorial voice, refer to it just as "Vautravers". Is it me, or is that just plain wrong? It's Americans who drop the "road" or the "lane" or the "mews". Not we Brits.
Early on, she writes a letter purporting to be from an English Private Client Solicitor. Now, it's not Audrey's fault that I happen to be an English Private Client Solicitor, but I can absolutely confirm that if I ever wrote a letter, out of the blue, to the beneficiary of an estate that contained the word "bequeathed" or the sentence "please let me know if you care to accept your aunt's bequest", my boss would have the red pen to it faster than you can say "unconvincing". Not to mention the fact that have you ever heard of an allegedly posh firm of solicitors having a business address of 54 "D" anywhere?
It's all little stuff, but it jars.
And then there's the big issues. The older twins have fallen out over a plot device so contrived and so unconvincing I found myself having to re-read it to make sure I'd actually understood it correctly. Plot spoiler below, so that anyone who has read the book, or isn't going to, can see what I mean, and correct me if I'm wrong. Essentially, none of the events of the book needed to happen, or indeed would have, if any of these characters had had half an ounce of common sense, or indeed behaved like real people. And I'm not even talking about the ghost. I like ghost stories after all.
What I don't like though, as I look at my wonderful identical girls, and try to help them grow into individuals, to make people see them as the two different and unique people they are, however alike they look, is a book that portrays identical twins as freaks. As one person trapped in two bodies.
Valentina and Julia are twenty. They have been brought up in suburban America by loving parents, one of whom is an identical twin who has created her own separate identity by totally breaking off relations with her sister. How then have they managed to bring up two girls who at that age refuse to be separated, dress alike and sleep in the same bed? There's some attempt at trying to portray this as coming more from Julia than Valentina, but surely their parents would have, indeed should have, encouraged them to be separate, to have separate interests, separate friends. They are both virgins because neither of them wants to have an experience the other has not had.
If my girls grow up and feel like that I will have utterly failed as their mother.
It's not as if Niffenegger portrays this as in any way out of the ordinary or odd. Early on in the book, Robert, the lover of Elspeth, says:
"Elspeth thought there was a limit to how far the twin relationship should go, in terms of each person giving up their own individuality"Excuse me? The twin relationship involves each person giving up their own individuality? I cannot begin to explain how wrong that feels to someone who sees her job, as a parent of twins, as being to ensure and preserve their individuality. I want them to have that individuality. Even if I didn't want it, they've got it anyway, and they're 20 months old, not 20 years. The twin relationship is a wonderful bonus, an added dimension to their relationship as sisters, and one that they'll never have with anyone else. But then the relationship they'll have with me, or with L, is one they'll never have with anyone else too.
I wondered whether my instant convinction that this was wrong was to do solely with parenting twins, and having read too many twin parenting books, and not actually the experience of being am identical twin, but then I talked to one, and she agreed. She said that she and her sister are close, of course they are, but that they are different, and that they have never felt that their relationship is different, in the sense of more significant, than their individual relationships with their other siblings. They look like each other, they share a birthday, their children are genetically half-siblings, but they live their own lives, independent of each other, in their own way.
I've digressed from the book, I realise that, but I'm afraid that after that, every time one of her characters spoke, or every time she described what they were (identically) wearing, or the bond between them became too strong to transcend, my hackles rose, and my teeth began to grind against each other.
I finished the book. I had to. I was hoping that something would happen that would redeem her in my eyes. But it didn't.
I won't be reading this one again, and I certainly won't be buying her next. But what's really getting to me is that this has, somehow, diminished the magic of her first for me too.
Plot spoiler below. Don't read if you don't want to know...
But if you have read it, am I right in thinking that what happens is:
Elspeth is engaged to Jack. She decides to test him so she swaps places with her twin. Jack finds himself very attracted to "Edie" and breaks off his engagement to "Elspeth" to marry "Edie". Both twins then spend the whole of the rest of their lives using the wrong name. And of course there's a muddle about who actually gets pregnant, and who is the mother of the twins.
So far so predictable. But aren't I right in thinking that the one he's just fallen in love with and broken off his engagement for is the one he's supposed to be in love with anyway?
Yes, admittedly they've swapped, so he'd have to come clean about not realising who was who (and in fact doesn't it then turn out that he's known all along), but isn't that actually flattering for the new Edie, that he loves her regardless of what her name is?
And assuming that that's right, why then did they all have to go on with the stupid charade? Surely they'd all just have confessed, been a bit pissed off with each other because it would all be a bit emotionally confusing, and then got on with their lives.
Oh, and, if your identical twin had accidentally slept with the man you loved and then got pregnant, would you really want her to keep the babies??
Is it just me or is it all a bit silly?