Thursday, September 23, 2010

New direction--and first review

Dear friends,

Owing to my inability to maintain disciplined habits, I am turning to a new way of chronicling my life: book reviews. Until I can begin to find meaningful or at least interesting things to tell the world about myself and my life, I'll settle for interesting things in the books I'm reading. The goal is to post a review of every book I read starting today. Fortunately, I just finished one.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I'll be honest: I picked this up because I loved The Time Traveler's Wife. I loved the reality of the characters, the quirky invention of chrono-impairment and the unlikely charm of a romance lived haphazardly. Despite what I would term melodramatic tendencies of Niffenegger and an oversharing quality about the intimate scenes, I fell in love with her prose, her characters, and the bittersweet ending.

Niffenegger's second novel follows Valentina and Julia Poole, mirror twins--meaning that while they resemble each other minutely, Valentina's anatomy is truly a mirror reflection of her sister's, down to the heart on the right side of her chest. When their aunt Elspeth, Mom's own mysteriously estranged twin sister, dies and leaves her flat in London overlooking Highgate Cemetery and all her possessions to the girls with the stipulation that they live in it for a year before selling it and that their parents not be allowed to set foot in it. After having failed in so many ventures, stubborn Julia and ethereal Valentina brave the British unknown, discovering many things about love, the next life, and their own family's mysterious connections with the help of their fellow flat-dwellers: OCD sufferer Martin, whose inability to leave the apartment led to his wife leaving, and Robert, Aunt Elspeth's former lover, bogged down in a thesis on the cemetery and his lingering feelings for his dead girlfriend.

I don't want to spoil the ending or tell too much about the story, but a central idea of Niffenegger's fictional conception of death is a waiting period where the soul is trapped, formless, in the confines of its former home. Aunt Elspeth dies only to find herself insubstantial and bound within her apartment, watching as her twin nieces begin new lives in the ruins of her old one. Though the concept begins intriguingly, something about it becomes very quickly pedestrian. There is no originality or vivacity to it like that which characterized the chrono-impairment of The Time Traveler's Wife. But above all, the biggest problem with Her Fearful Symmetry is its lack of satisfying answers. The BIG question that the novel ostensibly revolves around--why the Misses Poole's mother and aunt haven't spoken in years--has an answer that I guessed early on, and lacked impact when I finally had it confirmed. Other questions I found equally important, if not more so, than this one (like the importance of the cemetery, besides for atmosphere, as well as the cryptic quote-title riffed from Blake's "Tiger Tiger") remain unanswered.

The overall impression I came away with was one of bleak outlooks and hopelessness. It doesn't help that the novel was set in rainy, foggy London, but the sparkling prose I so enjoyed in Niffenegger's first offering was substituted for what felt as stolid and bland as an English breakfast. The delicate relationships forged in the novel seem tenuous at best, and those who ultimately find what they are seeking for are the least likely and perhaps least likable of the characters--Julie, with Martin's son Theo; mama Edie and papa Jack, in a rekindled romance despite the novel's opener; and Martin himself, whose separation from his wife ends with him slowly rehabilitating from his OCD and her remembering why she had sacrificed for so many years to stay with him. Other than this shining example of redemption, the novel ends on a decidedly sour note for many of the characters.

If you're a die-hard Niffenegger fan, go ahead and give this a read. You may find yourself--as I did--wondering when the novel is going to end, and for more casual fans, you'll probably want to give this a pass. If you're feeling depressed, this will only add to your melancholia.