22 August 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

Amid the promotion for the release of the movie adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife (briefly reviewed last September) a number of us garnered advance copies of her new novel. Her Fearful Symmetry goes on sale in the US September 29 and revolves around two pairs of twins, the nature of existence, and a ghost story. That's all I can really add to the plot beyond the blurb, which you can read on any product page, before I start giving too much away; HFS differs greatly from TTW in that there's really no good way to describe the plot (that one was easy - man with involuntary time-traveling issues meets woman who eventually becomes his wife despite the inherent problem of his disappearing suddenly for varying lengths of time).

I've been mulling over HFS all day and I can't quite put my finger on why I can't quite rave about Niffenegger's second novel. It was good; I liked the way she described her characters and I loved the bits about Highgate Cemetery since I'm a good little Victorianist but there's something that grates on me regarding the resolution of the novel (as well as the fact that I am slightly weirded out by the supernatural because there is a part of me that does believe we exist beyond the moment of death). Obviously, I can't get into the problem of plot resolution because 99.9% of the world hasn't read this and it would be really (really) inconsiderate if I spoiled the whole plot for everyone. HFS reminds me very much of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White with all the doubling and "Other" Niffenegger uses in her novel. HFS is both Victorian in feeling and not Victorian, Gothic in some respects but not very much in others. If you are decently well-read in Victorian novels there is a very good chance you'll guess one of the plot devices very early on; I had it pegged from about chapter three or four.

Of all Niffenegger's characters in HFS the one I feel best-drawn is Martin, the crossword-setting, scholarly upstairs neighbor whose life is almost completely subsumed by his OCD. The way Niffenegger has allowed Martin to both acknowledge the reality of the problems caused by his OCD and be completely controlled at times by his disease is interesting. It's like we are allowed to see the two sides of the brain - rational vs. irrational - fighting it out with Martin's OCD. I also find the relationship between Martin and his wife, Marijke, very touching. The other characters seem either too generic or too fantastic or (as strange as this may sound) too bizarre next to Martin (the subjects Niffenegger has Martin cover in his crosswords are absolutely amazing); in the case of the twins I thought they were the worst stereotype of lacksadaisical American teenagers with too much money until about halfway through the novel.

I did like this novel quite a bit. I'm not sure I'll rush out and buy it on the release date but I think this definitely deserves a re-read at some point in the future.

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