Saturday, 16 January 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

As a mother of teenage twins I get a bit fed up with the cliche of 'weird twins' in contemporary fiction, but Audrey Niffenegger's portrayal of mirror-image twins Valentina and Julia in Her Fearful Symmetry is sensitive and they are naive rather than freakish. The novel started off well. Set in Highgate Cemetery in London, there are lots of interesting details, for example the holly bushes in the cemetery which have sprouted from funeral wreaths left by the Victorians.

Valentina and Julia inherit a flat close to the cemetery which is haunted by Julia, the woman they believe to be their aunt. In the flat below lives Robert, Elspeth's former lover who is writing a dissertation on the cemetery and takes guided tours. In the flat above lives Martin, a man tormented by OCD who spends his time bleaching his floors and blanking out his windows. For me, Martin and his absent wife Marijke, are by far the most interesting and likeable characters in the novel.

The novel is cleverly plotted with a theme of twinning and symmetry. The history of Highgate is well-researched without being too research-y and I liked all the hip London references - Philip Treacy, The Sex Pistols, Prada and Liberty. Yet there was something missing from this novel for me. A good novel but not a great novel.

I enjoyed Book Snob's account of an evening with Audrey Niffenegger.

16 comments:

Paperback Reader said...

I agree that it was a good novel but not a great one.

The little details about Highgate, like the holly, were what made the novel for me and I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the cemetery by the author and she pointed out some of the holly sprigs.

I was also lucky enough to meet the lovely Rachel and attend that evening with her :).

Your photo of the book with the Starbucks mug is a familiar sight as often my books often appear like that; I found the reference to Edie reading her letters with a Starbucks to be incongruous and so modernly dated.

zetor said...

Sounds as though it was quite a busy book.

Steph said...

I wonder what it is about twins that makes them ripe for literary fodder... I guess there is something interesting about two physically identical beings wandering about the place, but you're right that most authors go to a "freaky" place.

I didn't love Niffenegger's first book, so I was on the fence about this one. I haven't read any reviews suggesting this is a great read, so I think I'll be ok passing on this one.

Eva said...

I was disappointed by this one as well...most of the characters just didn't feel at all real to me. I did like the ghost kitten, though! Wouldn't that be a fun pet? :)

A Bookish Space said...

I adoered the Time Travelers Wife, and although I would like to read Her Fearful Symmetry, I have out off reading it in case it is not as good as her first book (which indeed seems to be the case from various review I have read).

Thomas at My Porch said...

I just read this on vacation and was pleasantly surprised. Not my favorite book, but I really enjoyed reading it. I will have a review up in the next week or so.

Cath said...

I can't decide whether to read this one or not as I was in the minority who didn't care for The Time Traveler's Wife. I'll probably get it from the library at some stage rather than buying it.

Thomas at My Porch said...

Cath: I so didn't like Time Traveller's Wife that I didn't even read it. But I did like this one.

Vintage Reading said...

Paperback Reader, I've just read your excellent review - don't know how I missed it before as I regularly visit your blog. Wonderful pictures, too.

Zetor, too busy for me!

Steph, I didn't love the first book and I can't say I love this one either. Very readable and enjoyable but that's it for me.

Eva, yes the ghost kitten was cute!

A Bookish Space - there were parts of the first book I really enjoyed - the account of the cage in the library for example - I can't say this one is as enjoyable.

Thomas, it was too contrived for me. I'm a bit fed up with ghosts as central characters.

Cath, I know you like gothic fiction and this certainly fits the bill - it's a little too far-fetched for me though.

StuckInABook said...

I read this, and then couldn't think of anything at all to say, so didn't blog about it. I pretty much agree with you - good but not great. Though it was an accurate portrayal of one twin needing the other more than vice versa, I thought the lengths she took it to were rather silly - and I did get very annoyed with them dressing the same all the time, especially when one hated them being recognised as twins! But, as a twin, I am quite picky about twin-portrayals... still, I love them.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I don't want to introduce a spoiler, but Simon's point about twins makes me remember how crazy it made me that the one twin and the ghost never thought that standing up to the other twin might be sufficient to set appropriate boundaries. Perhaps they didn't need to go to such lengths.

Becky Holmes said...

Another good book that concerns Highgate Cemetary is Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. I loved that book. Have you read it?

Cath said...

I'll second Falling Angels! Definitely my favourite Tracy Chevalier, a really good read.

Vintage Reading said...

Simon, yes, I wondered about that. Would 20-year old twins dress the same? Wouldn't they be striving for individuality?

Thomas, yes, the portrayal of twins didn't somehow ring true for me.

Becky and Cath, I've read the pearl earring book by Tracy Chevalier and really liked it. I'll look out for Falling Angels. Thanks for the recommendation.

Kathy said...

Good review! I read this book recently too and I think your observations were spot-on.

I hate to be the nit-picking one but in your 2nd paragraph you said "Julia" where you meant "Elspeth."

The Book Shelf said...

It's not strictly about your post (which was very interesting!) but more about the twins territory, which I agree seems to bring out the unoriginal in so many authors. You may have read it already but The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Settersfield is one of most fantastic books 'with twins' that I have read in ages and I would highly recommend it.

hopefully it might slightly redress the balance!