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).