Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

rip4banner

Well, fittingly enough, I read this on the first official day of the RIP IV Challenge.  I got an ARC from the lovely and obliging people at the Regal Literary Agency (thanks, y’all!  I was so, so pleased to have it!) on Monday, and read it all in one go yesterday evening.

In Her Fearful Symmetry, due for proper release at the end of this month, Elspeth Noblin dies and leaves her London flat to her twin nieces, daughters of her own estranged twin Edie.  They can have it on their twenty-first birthday, and must live in it for one year before they can sell it; their parents are not to be allowed in the flat.  Julia and Valentina very sensibly accept this offer (I am mildly hoping that my mother has a rich estranged London twin like this who can conveniently die soon and let me do this exact thing), and take up residence in the flat, which is just outside Highgate Cemetery.  The flat downstairs contains Elspeth’s lover, Robert, who is missing her terribly; the upstairs flat contains Martin, whose crippling OCD has caused his wife to leave; and the twins’ flat contains Elspeth’s possessions.  And her ghost.

For a ghost story, this one isn’t very spooky.  That isn’t a criticism!  It’s just that the aim of a ghost story tends to be to give you spine prickles, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal here.  Remember how Audrey Niffenegger wrote about time travel in a clinical, matter-of-fact sort of way?  Time travel was part of the characters’ lives, and they try to figure out the rules and deal with it as best they can in their everyday lives.  Some people deal with it perfectly sensibly, and other people do not manage quite so well.  The ghosty aspects of Her Fearful Symmetry are handled in a similar fashion – this isn’t what I expected, but I liked it.

I loved the theme of identity, creating yourself as an individual, that runs all through the book.  The central characters are so vivid (apart from Robert – what is Robert all about?  I couldn’t figure him out), and they all struggle to decide who they are apart from the significant people in their lives.  It was completely opposite to The Time Traveler’s Wife, how Henry and Clare create themselves as a couple, but equally intriguing.  I particularly liked the friendship that develops between Julia and Martin, who are both going through the same thing – trying to be healthy and sane as their main life person is tugged away from them.  Martin’s OCD was not quite on, as is often the case when book characters have OCD, but apart from that, Martin was generally a wonderful character.  Maybe my favorite character.

Except, maybe, for the graveyard.  Highgate Cemetery is a character in this novel: the people buried in it and the secrets that it keeps (and Robert knows) are all very much a part of the story.  I love the scenes set in the cemetery, and I wish we could have had a bit more of the cemetery people – maybe that would have helped explain who Robert was.  Highgate feels like a co-conspirator in the – let’s say, in the slightly sketchier events of the novel, and like a haven for the nicer moments.

Her Fearful Symmetry is much more me than The Time Traveler’s Wife – I mean with the ghosts and the graveyard and the sisters – and I thought I might like it better.  Right now I am not sure.  It is a quieter book than Time Traveler’s Wife.   I mean that it doesn’t have that same wrenching emotional pull, and it is more understated about all the things that happen.  They are so different it’s hard to compare.  Which is great!  On with more books by Audrey Niffenegger that will all be individual and different and wonderful!

Hey, and this book mentioned David Tennant!  The twins one time watch that episode of Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (he does have long fingers), with the horse, and the Doctor gets smashed and Rose says, “Oh look at what the cat dragged in – the Oncoming Storm”, and I love that line and I love that episode!  David Tennant, hooray!

I have some very spoilery things to say, but I won’t say them until after the book has been released.  I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.  I advise you to trot out and buy this book promptly upon its release, because I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely be rereading it and, I expect, enjoying it more and more with successive rereadings.  I love a ghost story.  I loved this one.

Other reviews: Carl’s non-spoiler review & spoiler review, At Home with Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Books on the Brain, the book lady’s blog, Devourer of Books, 5 Minutes for Books, The Literate Housewife, S. Krishna’s Books, Yule Time Reading, let me know if you’ve reviewed this and I will add a link!

Yeah, so this is magic

Magic.  I should have done this, like, much sooner.  Except that I didn’t believe (despite ample evidence all through my blogroll to the contrary) that it was possibly possible that you could really truly genuinely say, “Excuse me, may I have a copy of that book, which I desperately desperately want, before it is released?” and then receive an actual copy of the book in the post.  BEFORE IT IS OUT.

And yet:

My ARC (yay!)

Good, eh?  I like this cover best – the American cover is a little too bluey and generic for me (generic but not spare like my copy is), and the British cover is too, I don’t know – I like it better than the American one, but slightly less than mine.  See what you think:

American cover:

Her Fearful Symmetry - American

And the British one (I don’t like people on my book covers!):

Her Fearful Symmetry - British

A review is forthcoming.  I have completely spoiled myself for this book (it’s okay!  I like it that way!), and I am madly excited to see how the bare bones plot that I know about gets – er, I can’t think of a way to continue this metaphor without its being yucky.  What I mean is, I’m excited to see how she manages it with the characters and everything.  Until then, I will just let you know that this book is set in London near Highgate Cemetery, a place that is mainly of interest to me because of this Dorothy Parker gem:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Buried all of his libretti;
Thought the matter over, then
Went and dug them up again.

That is a true story.  Dorothy Parker did not make this story up.  She did fail to mention the crucial point about this story, which is that Rossetti buried his poems WITH HIS DEAD WIFE in Highgate Cemetery, as a token of how sad he was that she had died.  They were his only copies.  It would have been quite a gesture had he not subsequently been like, Shit.  I wanted those, and obtained permission to exhume her body and get them back.  Oh, Rossetti, you wacky drug-addicted, wombat-obsessed grave-robber.  Apparently (so says Wikipedia), he had put his poems all up in her long red hair, and he had to root around in her hair to extract them again.

Gross.

Thoughts on the covers?  Other good grave-robbing/cemetery anecdotes?

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I recently reread this book, and I was planning to wait on writing about it until I could see the movie, but the people I see movies with are either like “Are you nuts?  I saw it the first instant it came out!” or else “I can’t watch it!  The book is too precious to me!” or else (more rarely) “Looks mushy.  Let’s go see (500) Days of Summer instead.”  (And we did.  And it was excellent.  But I am still curious about The Time Traveler’s Wife film, because I loved the book so much.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife I feel like is famous enough that I don’t need to give a synopsis?  But here one is anyway: Henry is a time-traveler.  In times of stress or just for no reason at all, he vanishes from his own time and goes somewhere else – could be his childhood, his wife’s childhood, his future, or (we don’t see much of this but) any time at all.  He meets his wife Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, but Clare has known him since she was six years old.  So this is the story of their relationship from start to finish.

I like so many things about this book!  I love it that Clare and Henry start out by having a completely different story of their relationship – to Clare it’s something she has always known (destiny!), and to Henry it’s a complete, unexpected, amazing surprise.  Then gradually, as he spends more and more time with Clare at all different ages, her version of the story becomes the true one for him, too.  I also like it how they create each other – Clare has grown up with Henry, and (like it or not!) he shapes her into who she is; and when she meets him “in real life”, he is able to see himself the way she sees him, and try to become that person.  There is a scene where Clare goes dancing with Henry, not long after they meet in real time, and runs into an ex of his in the bathroom, who says all sorts of unpleasant things about him.  Shaken, she wanders back out and runs into a version of Henry from farther on, a Henry she recognizes and knows.  This Henry says of his past self:

“When I met you, I was wrecked, blasted, and damned, and I am slowly pulling myself together because I can see that you are a real human being and I would like to be one too.  And I have been trying to do it without you noticing, because I still haven’t figured out that all pretense is useless between us.  But it’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with here in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996.  You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”

I love that.  They invent each other!  It’s brilliant!  Slightly weird, but brilliant.

I like the way the book is structured, in little slices of their lives, the present and past and future.  There are brief moments between them that are really lovely, and not nearly enough of the gentle, quiet times together that Henry says he loves the best.  Not enough, but that’s why it works – because, of course, it never is enough (for them), and Henry always vanishes, and leaves Clare behind waiting (like Penelope, she says) (“yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’s absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths”).  The book has its fair share of unhappiness, and you can see it curving in that direction as Clare and Henry carry on with their relationship.

Also, oh!  Here’s something else that is good!  Although the book is about a relationship, and in that sense it’s a romance, it doesn’t do any of the romantic thing of skirting around physical stuff.  I’m not talking about just sex, though there is sex, but about the physicality of Henry’s condition, their difficulties in having a baby, and – er, well, other depressing things that happen later on in the book, which I won’t spoil for you even though it made me really sad.  Henry’s condition brings Clare and Henry together, but it also makes them suffer terribly.  So the fact that his condition has brought them together feels less like destiny and more like the law of averages – it can’t be all bad, but there is a lot of permanent, bad stuff too.

I wish I could excerpt all the scenes I love best, but it would take too long.  I love it when Clare runs into a future version of Henry when she’s out dancing, and when Clare finds her mum’s poem, and when Henry meets Alba for the first time, and the very last scene of the whole book.  I think those are my favorite ones.