Rachel's Reviews > Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
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Oct 12, 09

Read in October, 2009

The fact that this book is titled after a line in one of my least favorite poems ever* should perhaps be a strike against it, but the title is quite fitting and somehow makes even more sense in this context than in Blake's use of it. This is the story of two sets of twins (hence the symmetry) who have an extremely odd system of relationships -- "system," because the story explores the highly varied and yet remarkably similar relationships between the four twins. To say too much about these relationships would be to give away bits of the plot, but let me just say it was not at all what I expected, and the title word "fearful" is definitely apt.

While this story lacked (for me, at least) some of the magic of The Time Traveler's Wife, it is just as artfully written and explores the intricacies of relationships with the same deftness and insight as Niffenegger's earlier work. I would have liked to learn a bit more about Jessica and James, whose characters seemed to be placeholders and whose stories were never fully developed, but otherwise Niffenegger does a phenomenal job of developing a very intriguing cast of characters. Some of the traits are a bit extreme, perhaps -- there was certainly room for a bit more gray area on the black-and-white spectrum -- but overall the people seemed real and their actions were largely believable. (Whether or not you believe in ghosts, of course, remains up to you.)

One of the things that delighted me most about this story was that the text did not seem to "Americanized" -- the British slang remains intact, and the text makes reference to London life without apology to a clueless American audience. I'm by no means an expert here, so perhaps one of my non-American friends can chime in on the veracity of Niffenegger's use of British English, but hey, at least she spells "bollocks" correctly (*nudge* Shannon).

On the other hand, one of the things that delighted me least was how unabashedly straightforward all the characters were. Julia even points out that "American" may be a euphemism for "rude," so it seems that Niffenegger was conscious of how straightforward all the characters were, but it seems that perhaps she couldn't help herself and had to use this sort of brashness to progress the plot and explain some of the intricacies. Given that we see so many characters' perspectives in the narration, this seemed like a bit of a cop out.

I can't say the ending was totally a surprise -- I could see it coming a few chapters in advance, especially coming as it did on the heels of so many characters' questioning and extrapolating. And to be honest, I have to wonder how much of her idea for this story came from talking to Neil Gaiman as he was writing The Graveyard Book. There are some interesting parallels between the stories, and in some ways this seems to be almost a grown-up version of the same (not a bad thing, but still...). But overall, I loved the story, and very much enjoyed the fact that Niffenegger continues to be unconstrained by the strictures of reality as we know it. Her writing remains a delight.

* Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? William Blake "The Tyger" (1794).
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message 1: by Shannon (Giraffe Days) (last edited Oct 14, 2009 06:48AM) (new) - added it

Shannon (Giraffe Days) *laughs*

So glad to hear Niffenegger got her British slang (and spelling) right! That kind of thing can really undermine a story; I lose all respect.

I'm looking forward to reading this one, but I'll have to wait for the paperback. I'm glad though to read a positive review!! Too many have been just "was different from Time Traveler's Wife" which doesn't seem like a good enough reason to dislike a book! Your review is so thorough and balanced and I love learning about the origins of the title - I'm not familiar with that poem.

Susan HA! Is there some kind of traumatic "Tyger" event in your past?

I'm waiting for a copy of this to become available at the library (I'm number 5, so it shouldn't be too long) and I'm really looking forward to it. Excellent review :)

Rachel Thanks, Shannon! My reviews are still nowhere near as thorough as yours, though. You have quite an eye for detail! (Does that phrase still apply when we're talking about books instead of art?)

Rachel And Susan: no, there's no traumatic "Tyger" event (unless perhaps I've suppressed the trauma?). I did grad school in English Literature, and Blake's poem is one of those ones that we're supposed to love... but I firmly maintain that it is a crappy poem.

Thanks for the kind words about the review! :) I really did enjoy this book, although it seems that not everyone was so enchanted by it. It'll be interesting to watch the average rating as more readers get their turn with it.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Rachel wrote: "Thanks, Shannon! My reviews are still nowhere near as thorough as yours, though. You have quite an eye for detail! (Does that phrase still apply when we're talking about books instead of art?)"

Don't see why not ;)

Melanie I liked the book too - then when I saw a crop of negative reviews I wondered if I had enjoyed it just because I am English, living in the US, and happy to curl up with a book set in London. She writes English people very well, I have to say. Your review tells me I'm not alone in liking it. Perhaps the themes are a stretch too far for some fans of her previous novel about, er, time travel.

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