My first thoughts as I begin to review Audrey Niffenegger’s new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry are of worry: I fear that I will never be capable of reviewing this book in a manner that appropriately expresses my impressions and feelings. It’s almost as if the words that I have access to cannot adequately describe this indescribable novel. As with The Time Traveler’s Wife before it, I find that my efforts to sum up this book are woefully insufficient. Saying that The Time Traveler’s Wife was a story about a guy who time travels, is the equivalent of saying that Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story. True statements, yes, but that’s just skimming off the top of a complex, unique, and distinctive story.
As is our custom, I will avoid any plot spoilers so as to keep the review clean for readers. This novel takes its time laying out the story, opening with the death of Elspeth Noblin, and gradually introducing a circle of characters all connected to Elspeth, and each other, in one way or another. Elspeth’s twin nieces, Julia and Valentina (the daughters of Elspeth’s twin, Edwina) leave the United States to go live in Elspeth’s London apartment as she had offered in her final papers. Even though they never met their aunt, Julia and Valentina make the trip, and the intricacies of the story begin to be laid out as they take residence in Elspeth’s former flat.
There is a mysterious feel to the novel almost immediately, as if for every scene that is depicted, there are two untold stories to accompany it that the reader is left to wonder about. For me, reading this book was like being put in a trance– the outside world slipped away, and I became enmeshed in this heavy fog of a novel. Even as I hungered for more of the story, I held back from devouring it, and I tried instead to savor all aspects– the complexities of the story, the beauty of word choices, and the emotions that rose up as I read. The third person narrative read so originally that, I kid you not, my mind’s voice adopted a distinguished British accent to present the text. One particular feature that I thought was significant, was that during many conversations between characters, in addition to the words spoken aloud, were the unspoken words as well. Put on display for the reader in all their italicized, inner-thought beauty, these words often told more than the spoken words had. In effect, this transformed the narrative, at unexpected moments, into a sudden first-person perspective, only to quickly return back.
At the heart of this eccentric story are themes of love and devotion, although not necessarily in the typical romantic and expected ways. Relationships between twins as well as lovers are put on display in a manner that suggests a wholeness that is present in these pairings, but that wholeness can be seen from different angles, different perspectives. A phrase is used near the end of the novel that seemed incredibly poignant to me in describing one such relationship, which I felt was applicable to the many different pairings of characters– “The layering, the intertwining.” These words are probably the best ones to use as I struggle to express what appealed to me so greatly about this entire book, because there is definitely a layering and intertwining of characters, plot lines, secrets, mysteries, and connections.
As far as love is addressed, I’m left with one particular idea that was echoed several times in different stages of the story. When asked how it feels to be in love with another, a character defines it as, “…wanting to be known.” At another point in the novel, the narrator posits, “What is more basic than the need to be known? It is the entirety of intimacy, the elixir of love, this knowing.” I was blown away by the simple truths in these statements. This ultimate theme can be applied to every primary character’s experiences in these pages, and I found it to be a lingering thought in my head as I closed the book and returned to my own life.
So yes, at times this novel tells an eerie and disturbing story, and at others, readers become swept away by its beauty and deep truths. All in all, it will be remembered as falling into a category all its own, not easily pigeonholed into any one classification or description. Audrey Niffenegger has done it again; she’s left me somewhat bewildered, and decidedly enchanted with her creation. Her Fearful Symmetry will be available for purchase tomorrow, 09/29/09. You won’t be surprised to know that I’ve included it on our list of 5 Star Reads.
Dawn is blown away by the power of a book. When she’s not reading, she can be found blogging away at my thoughts exactly.
Jennifer (5 Minutes for Books) says
Audrey N. can sure tell a story, so I have a feeling I’ll be giving this one a try at some point.
I didn’t realize she had a new novel out. I’m so excited!
Sherry Early says
Ummm, well, I’m the only person in the world that hated The TIme Traveler’s Wife. SO, I’m wondering if I would like this one or not. In spite of my disdain for TTW, I did think that Ms. Niffenegger had the ability to tell a good story, so I’m on the fence about trying this new one out.
Dawn, that was a wonderful review and so resonates with my own feelings about the book. I agree with you on nearly every point. Niffenegger’s ability to tell a story is incredible. The way she brings you along, preparing you in such a way as to make the most incredible stories seem credible.
Of course, I would not say any more, as I would never want to spoil the plot for someone who has not yet read it.
If I had to pick just one thing that make the book stand out for me, it would be (as you mentioned) the unspoken words written in italics after the spoken words. I took those italicized words to be what character really meant, but wouldn’t or couldn’t say. That convention brought me right into the character’s head, making the book come completely alive for me.
Thanks for the great review and recommendation. I definitely second it.
Thanks so much for your comment, Barb. I was particularly pleased with how this write up came out, and I thought this book was simply so unique and outstanding.
Glad to hear that you enjoyed it as well!