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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry is Audrey Niffenegger's follow up to her best selling, critically acclaimed (and now a major motion picture! that received mixed reviews), The Time Traveler's Wife. I haven't read the latter, but I recently finished the former. Symmetry received mixed reviews. I was not especially blown away by this book... In fact I spent the last half of it thinking about it and wondering why I felt the pervading sense that nothing really happens, even though clearly--very big, highly implausible--things happen. Indeed, a very big thing happens towards the end and then I thought, I don't really know what to make of this. In the days between finishing the book and posting this review, I've been thinking that the ending was a little bleak, a little cold and a little cruel. The thing is the book is not a supernatural, ghost story at its heart--at least it does not begin that--but it veers far, far into that realm by story's end. I suppose that's what makes it so implausible for me--for someone who regularly suspends her disbelief to watch supernatural, horror films or read supernatural, ghost mysteries.

At its heart, Symmetry is a novel of family and the secrets that both bind and estrange us from the ones we love. It is also about identity, individuality, of loving and letting go--of the ones you love, of life after you've died, of devastating family secrets and of the things that restrict and repress us. I think Niffenegger would have done better to focus on the human, familial aspects of the novel rather than bringing in the supernatural hocus pocus subplot that quickly steals the show.

Born and raised in England, Edie and Elspeth were twins whose identities and lives were so intertwined and entangled that they shared the same bed among other things. Years ago they split and have remained estranged for half a lifetime--until Elspeth's death makes the estrangement permanent. The secret at the heart of the twins' estrangement is not what is at first hinted at towards the beginning. Instead it is an even more twisted, tangled, complicated and confusing mess than one could ever imagine. And I'm still not sure I've got the whole thing straight in my head (which is saying something).

Julia and Valentina are twins--Edie's American born and raised daughters--and they are even closer and more intertwined than Edie and Elspeth were. Julia is the dominant twin; she makes all the decisions for them and Valentina, less strong willed than her sister, follows her lead. Julia holds on to Valentina and refuses to let her go to live her own life. It is Julia who makes the decision to accept the terms of their aunt's will to live in her London flat for a year. Ironically, this is the decision that sets the twins on the course that will finally, completely, and irrevocably estrange them and wrench them from each other forever. Because Julia cannot let Valentina go, Valentina, aided by the ghost of her dead aunt who has her own cruel and selfish agenda, hatches a twisted and desperate plan to leave her sister forever in order to lead her own life. It is the kind of plan that can only end badly for everyone involved.

In many ways Julia's and Valentina's progress toward estrangement mirrors their mother's from her sister. However, ultimately, it is far more devastating in its consequences for everyone involved who has ever loved Julia and Valentina.

Sometimes writing a review helps clarify how I feel about a particular book. This is not one of those times. Or maybe it is. In the end, this book is just messed up. The story and that which transpires in the story and the actions and motives of the characters is messed up, like seriously and severely messed up and in need of some serious psychological help and/or medication. Valentina's plan, for example, is some serious, twisted passive aggressiveness. I just kept hoping that the end would redeem everything--because sometimes an ending can save a book or a movie--but in the end nothing is redeemed and nothing is really resolved.

Okay. I need to just stop typing because it's not going to make it better, and it won't make me less confused or less conflicted about the whole book and how it ended. I just don't have the words to express how I feel about this book or at least not ones that are appropriate for this blog. And I cannot in good conscience recommend you read this book unless you enjoy messed up and twisted and implausible.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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