Friday, 10 September 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry? Her dreadful book, more like.

I think in order to understand just how much I didn't like this book, you need to understand just how much I loved Audrey Niffenegger's previous one, the Time Traveler's Wife (deliberate spelling, she's American).

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?


  1. It was awful! How could she have let that hapen after having such a great other book. My daughter started it and get to about page 55 beofre she passed it on to me. I finished only out of principle. Glad you agree.

  2. I love that you get so into this! No need to read it at all now. And yes, that does sound very silly.

  3. Interesting! I've just read this. I actually enjoyed most of it although I agree with you, the plot is pretty silly and I didn't like the ending. And I can see that the twin thing must be unsettling if you have twins or are one. She made it sound like the girls were total freaks of nature. I quite liked the Elspeth character though and I liked the sub-plot with OCD Martin.

  4. I've picked this up several times and dismissed it at the blurb. I too absolutely loved The Time Traveler's Wife (can't bring myself to see the movie). My instincts have been validated - ta muchly :)

  5. Mother Hen - Glad I'm not alone! I just thought it was rotten (as you can probably tell!). Can't really believe I read the whole thing. Thank you for following though - I promise not to be quite this ranty every time!

    Mwa - whoops! Did I get a bit over-involved?!

    Nappy Valley Girl - I wondered whether it was more jarring from my particular perspective, and I suspect that if I didn't have twins I probably would have been more like you. I liked the Martin thing too, although why didn't his son come and see him more often?!

    Mrs W - you're welcome: although I can't say I wouldn't have been fascinated to see what you'd have thought! Oh, and I'm with you on the movie - it'll either be excellent, in which case other movie goers will risk drowning or, more likely, it'll be rotten and I'll have to get cross.

  6. I didn't even finish Time Traveler's wife, nor did my daughter.

    I thought it silly, I prefer realistic books, didn't go for Life of Pi either.

    Thank goodness they were 'set' books for the reading group, certainly wouldn't have bought them.

  7. I saw the picture, read the title, and then "la la la'd" all the way to the bottom. Why? because i'm reading this bloody book right at the moment! I'm now going to assume that you didn't like the book because a) you're usually into bloody curdling horror b) you are twin phobic or c) you're illiterate. I'm gonna assume that until i've finished the book myself. Because i'm gonna bloody well read it, and then come back and add another comment saying i also thought it was crap.

    la la la



  8. M2M - would it make you feel better if I told you that Shannon from Everyday Stranger loved it?! And she's normally a girl whose taste in books I agree with.

    Pixie Mum - Shame you didn't like the Time Traveler's Wife, because it's definitely one of those books I will be recommending to my girls when they grow up... Hey ho, just all goes to show that it's so personal this book thing isn't it?!

  9. Oh no, is it OK to say I liked it?! Yes, the whole jumping in and out of bodies was a bit weird, but I tried to keep an open mind!

    Loved Time Traveler's Wife much more though.

    Have you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? I've just finished that and I loved it. But maybe you won't trust my opinion now ;-)

  10. I have never been so disappointed in a book ever. I bought it the day it was released, and hated it. I put it down at first to just wanting another Time T's W. But no, it's rotten- you don;t like any of the characters (least of all the girl twins) and the big set piece at the end is beyond ludicrous. Audrey??? WTF?

  11. Calif Lorna - Clearly it's ok to say you liked it, but then clearly you're wrong....! Seriously though, it's actually very interesting how people seem to react very different to this one - as I say, Shannon loved it, and if you look at the Amazon reviews, they either rave or rant. As for the Dragon Tattoo, I loved it, but then felt really let down by the next two. Read them, as I'll be really interested to know what you think, but maybe don't do what I do and read them all straight after each other... I blogged about them - but don't read it until after you've read the books. I don't want to influence you!

    Missy M - you and me both!

  12. Whoops. "Differently". Clearly

  13. Yes. VERY silly. I also had major issues with the way she likes to end books with... nothing. No ending. It just... stops. That royally pisses me off. My entire LIFE is one continuous cliffhanger; I do not need a freaking cliffhanger at the end of a ridiculous book! It's the END. I paid to find out how it ENDED, so END THE DANG THING!

  14. I've avoided this one so far -- possibly because it has gotten so much press. I'm expecting twins right now (although probably not identical), so will now hold off -- maybe forever. Thanks!

  15. Tracey - you made me laugh! I totally agree. Just tell me what happened!!! I wonder if she just didn't know what to put!?

    Texas Red - first off congratulations! It's wonderful and amazing and utterly exhausting all at the same time! But yes, definitely avoid, espeically if they do turn out to be identical!

  16. I loved the book and also purchased the audio book and enjoyed it so much I listen to it often

    1. Takes all sorts doesn't it? I wonder if there are books you've hated that I've loved...?

  17. Everyone has their own opinion. I loved it. Point blank.

    1. I think it's really interesting how much this book divides people. I still bristle when I think about it, yet you loved it. I wonder if there are other books we'd both enjoy?

  18. "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??"

    I don't understand this comment : the one who gets to keep the twins in the novel is the one who loved the father of the twins to begin with, not her twin who became accidentally pregnant. Hence the exchange when the babies are a few months old.


I know. I'm sorry. I hate these word recognition, are you a robot, guff things too, but having just got rid of a large number of ungrammatical and poorly spelt adverts for all sorts of things I don't want, and especially don't want on my blog, I'm hoping that this will mean that only lovely people, of the actually a person variety, will comment.

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