Monday, April 19, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting to really like it. In fact, I wasn't expecting that I would even read it.
I was definitely one of those readers in the minority with The Time Traveler's Wife -- just not that into it. Couldn't get past the whole bit of the naked grown man popping in on his future wife at six years old part. I found Henry to be moody, depressing and completely self-absorbed. I wanted to shake Clare and tell her, "You could do so much better than that old Dougie Downer!" "Dear God, woman, they've chopped his feet off now!" Truth be told I was relieved when he died, until I realized that their daughter had inherited Henry's "affliction." Poor Clare the martyr, poor weird daughter. To me, not so much a dreamy romance.

What made me pick this story up? First, the title.
A line borrowed from William Blake's The Tyger. From Songs of Innocence and Experience: Songs of Contrary States of the Human Soul (Songs of Experience)
Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Tyger has a companion poem, The Lamb (Songs of Innocence)
Symmetry was an interesting concept for Blake who used opposites as "sames." Day cannot exist without night as good cannot exist without bad for example. They are two sides of a same so to speak for they serve to define the other. (Yes, I am aware that Blake laid it out more eloquently.) So what does the title allude to? Why "her" fearful symmetry?

I would discover that this story begins with a death and a mysterious inheritance. Two young American twins (not quite identical in the sense we understand it, but symmetrical, their bodies mirror each other's - Valentina's heart is on the opposite side of her sister Julia's, etc) are lured to England to inherit the estate of the aunt they never met, their mother's twin sister.
The inheritance comes with a stipulation. The twins must live in their aunt's apartment for a year before they can sell it. The apartment backs onto Highgate Cemetry, final resting place of their aunt, Karl Marx, George Eliot and Christina Rossetti.

During their year in the apartment, the sisters are introduced to the other tenants, obsessive compulsive Martin, the grieving (and also obsessive) Robert- the cemetery's tour guide, and a ghost who cannot let go of the past.

I really enjoyed this novel. Most likely because it contained all the elements of a contemporary gothic story; wealthy family with lots of skeletons rattling in their closets, mausoleums and a famous cemetery, inheritances, twins and identity confusion, obsessive love, and ghosts. The creepiness, which became creepy-exteme as the novel raced to it's conclusion, worked for me with this novel where it did not with the author's first. It was not the ending that I would have expected and honestly, not what I was hoping for, but, it really worked for the story. A good, and fairly quick, read.


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