Review: ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ by Audrey Niffenegger

I loved ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ (who didn’t?!) so couldn’t wait to get stuck into another Niffenegger novel – but I should have waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

Because ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ was just odd.

Warning – spoilers ahead.

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Firstly, the title: I don’t understand what was supposed to be ‘fearful’ about the book. Creepy, yes. Weird, definitely. But twins happen, so why it became such an overawing feature of a novel was unclear. And to be honest, being twins was made into something that should affect the novel way more than it should have been; it didn’t matter at the end of the day with regards to Julia and Valentina, so its necessity was overplayed. And its use with Elspeth and Edie – just ew. Poor Jack.

And Robert – I cannot overstate what an utter creep I felt this man was. Oh, the love of my life has died – I shall attempt a clumsy seduction of her niece/daughter who looks like her even though this is wildly inappropriate and she’s clearly not sure of what she wants. Stalking on a tube, taking young naive girls to odd dates, procreating with the ghost of your dead girlfriend inhabiting said naive girl’s body which – by the by – is also dead girlfriend’s biological daughter…This is a clearly irresistible specimen, who then acts the victim to just solidify what a mollusc he is. Did I mention I didn’t like him?

If I’m honest, I couldn’t tell you what the overriding plot was supposed to be; was it ghostly shenanigans, was it two teens finding their way in a difficult new life, was it a man overcoming his grief and failing…? Not to mention the only plot line that was wonderful but under explored, that of OCD Martin and long-suffering wife Marijke. It was like the ending was a garble of a plot that should have been after nothing happened for the longest time, the whole sequence of events didn’t add together neatly.

That said, I do have to give credit where credit is due; once Valentina’s ridiculous idea of fake dying (oops) was mentioned, the tension ramped up somewhat and I did want to keep reading to find out the outcome (although to give further credit, I figured out what would happen, and more ew followed). The outcome was disappointing, but it was pursuable.

What I did love was Martin’s OCD storyline; what a misused gem this was. How much I loved and rooted for this man who just wanted to love his wife but whose suffering outweighed that love. I wish we could have seen more of his transformation, but because he was neglected his steps back into the world seemed hurried and undernourished, an unfitting reward for his courage.

In all, this was not what I was expecting; a ghostly thriller let down by too many plots, creeps and uncertain decisions.

 

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Review: ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveller's Wife

I must admit, I did this the wrong way around: I watched, and was thoroughly enchanted by, the film of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ before reading the novel. I’ve been told what a wonderful novel it is, even by the woman who sold me the book, and so I was quite happy to pack it as a holiday read, and it certainly wasn’t a waste of packing space.

The biggest flaw in the film, I found, was Gomez: gone was the cheeky blonde harbouring an unrequited love, and in was someone who frankly hadn’t left my mind as the guy who played Burger in ‘Sex and the City’. I much preferred the former, as it added depth to both Clare’s determination to weather any storms that may have hit her life with Henry, as well as showing the intensity of her grief by highlighting her desperation to recapture anything that could be likened to the intimacy she had shared with Henry.

Clare has to be one of my favourite female characters from a novel, and there aren’t many of those, as normally I find females have to be strong and independent, or submit to a turmoil of emotions. Clare managed to be emotional and strong; independent yet craving the uncontrollable love in her life: in short, she wasn’t perfect, but her flaws were legitimate and forgivable. The betrayal of Charisse seemed unimportant compared to the revelation that Gomez had been, and would later reprise the role of, Henry’s standby: Clare needed a physical form to embody everything she felt emotionally, illustrating her desire alongside her fallibility.

Henry is a character I have less to say about, mainly because I feel he was what he was: someone grasping onto his life with both hands once he found a point for it to centre around. His characters is innately wound up in Clare’s, which Niffenegger makes inherently clear in the title of her novel, which both solidifies and legitimises the hold the pair have upon one another: cause and effect cannot be revealed, because the one cannot be without the other.

The only character I really feel was let down within the novel was Benny: he seemed to start out as one of many pathways Henry felt compelled to take to control his future (or past, as it were), and yet while we’re told enough about him to feel a certain connection (his anger as his ex, Allan, for infecting him with AIDS strikes a chord with the cause and effect side of the novel, for instance), after the wedding and until the New Year party he doesn’t exist. Essentially, he is replaced by the more sage and infinitely more legal Kendrick, even down to his son’s suffering from Down’s Sydrome replacing Benny’s fight for his life. Apart from this, the major characters felt fully rounded and able to add to the three-dimensional view of the main storyline whilst also adding their own history to ensure nothing fell flat in terms of vulnerability, the interlinks between Henry’s life and the lives of those around him, and in substantiating how the individual contributed to the whole picture.

The couple of references to Henry playing Humbert Humbert to Clare’s Lolita is perhaps one of the things that caught my attention more than the other literary references: is it wrong that Henry loves Clare both at thirteen and thirty? In my view, I don’t see it as the same relationship as Lolita had with her guardian – I see Henry as more of a guardian angel, knowing he is acting on behalf of the woman he will love entirely by issuing a protective love to her younger self. The gun incident shows this perfectly, as while Henry knows there are limits to his aiding Clare, he cannot let her go undefended, and his return to the present-day Clare shows the difference between him loving the young Clare by his image, and him loving the older Clare emotionally when he kisses the cigarette burn scar. What I mean to say is, that the love for the younger Clare is based around Henry fulfilling a knight-in-shining-armour role, whereas in his present, Henry has to substantiate this image. The borderline of this is seen when he kisses a sixteen-year-old Clare in anger and she proclaims that it ‘wasn’t very nice’, showing that the physical cannot exist happily without the emotional side.

Audrey Niffenegger has achieved a rare thing, in creating a premier novel that can capture both hearts and minds without being overbearing or underwhelming. Whilst ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ is tragic, it is also softly beautiful, and this combination enables it to show both the whole image, as well as highlighting realistically the many compartments that create this whole, in turn causing the novel to be a timeless classic.