Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

her-fearful-symmetry-PBRead for: The Gabriola Book Club’s First Selection!

Rating: 1/5

I am seriously falling behind on my book reviews and have several I should write before I get to this one, but we just had our meeting and the discussion is fresh in my brain, so here we are. THIS BOOK. What a train wreck!

This review contains ALL THE SPOILERS because I just need to really rail on this one.

I enjoyed the Time Traveler’s Wife, like just about everybody else in the stratosphere, but I don’t know what the frack happened with this one. It reads like a manuscript slapped together by a high school student for a creative writing class on the kind of tight deadline where you don’t even care if it’s good you just want to get it done. I couldn’t figure out what exactly Niffenegger was trying to say with this strange tale of twin daughters born to a twin with a complicated relationship with her sister. The book begins with the death of Elspeth, twin sister to Edie, Aunt to Julia and Valentina. Elspeth bequeathed her London flat and all her money to the twins on the condition that her sister Edie and her husband Jack never be allowed to set foot in it. Julia and Valentina, waify blonde girls with an affinity for wearing matching white outfits, take off for London despite their total confusion over who Elspeth was and why she left everything to them. Edie and Jack are of course outraged but also put up absolutely zero fight about it (likely due to the fact that J & V are supposedly 20-something but are written more like pre-teens.) Also introduced in the very slow first 80 pages are Martin and his wife Marijke who live in the flat above, and Robert who lives in the flat below and was Elspeth’s lover.

Similar to TTW, this book falls into the magic realism genre which eventually becomes apparent when Elspeth finds herself a ghost trapped in her old flat. Normally I do not have difficulty suspending my disbelief to read and enjoy a fantastic piece of writing (jeez, this is basically all I ever read) but good golly the plot devices Niffenegger uses come across as completely arbitrary and it drove me absolutely mental. The writing style itself was very simple and if it weren’t for the fact that I was blasting through it I would have probably shredded it and thrown it into the chicken coop.

Things I hated about this book:

1. The characters are all horrid. Julia is an overprotective beast when it comes to Valentina (condescendingly nicknamed Mouse), and a manipulative trickster when it comes to her [totally not essential to the plot] relationship with Martin. Valentina is meek and naïve to a degree that is infuriating. Robert is essentially an unstable stalker pedophile. He is afraid to introduce himself to the twins when they first arrive because he has been so heavily traumatized by Elspeth’s death, so he just follows them around the city at a distance. When he finally gets close to the twins it is when he has singled out Valentina on the train and his first words to her are “Which one are you?” and she answers “Valentina” as if that is not an alarming or creepy question from a stranger on public transit. The only saving grace was Martin, an OCD riddled recluse who was easily the most dynamic of the bunch though arguably he and his wife could have been cut out of the story entirely and it would have made little difference to the development of Julia and Valentina as characters.

2. THE CREEPINESS. No, not the creep factor of ghosts following people around, but the icky creep factor of Robert immediately falling in love with Valentina, and her apparently reciprocating, despite ZERO dialogue between the two characters that would indicate they had anything in common or any passion for each other. Robert “loves” Valentina because he wants her to be Elspeth, and Valentina “loves” Robert, I imagine, because she wants to do sex to him without Julia around. There is a weird tension between the twins because they experience everything together but when they finally become sexually active it will have to be independent of each other and that makes the sad twins feel sad. Is this a thing that happens with twins or do these two just have freaky separation anxiety? I’m not even going to get into how Robert later steals Valentina’s dead body and hauls it to his flat, brings it back to life then immediately has sex with it. Cuz THAT HAPPENS.

3. That brings me to the point of the story that is clearly intended to be the most pivotal: after Julia and Valentina befriend Elspeth’s ghost, Elspeth discovers while playing with their kitten that she can “hook” souls and pull them out of living bodies. She pulls the soul out of the kitten, effectively killing it, then shoves it back into the body in a panic and discovers the kitten has been revived. Because of this one ludicrous act Valentina decides she wants Elspeth to “kill” her so she can have a fake funeral and then be revived without Julia knowing, allowing her to escape her overbearing sister. WHAAAAAAT. This has got to be the stupidest machination ever employed by anyone ever. I found this to be problematic for several reasons: for magical realism to feel “plausible” or at least not be distracting to the reader, there should be a set of rules in place that make the story make sense. Elspeth can’t leave the apartment – even though the reason for this isn’t explained, the reader at least takes it at face value and runs with it. Fine. To start throwing weird shit into the mix makes it hard to follow. Wait, now she can kill people? Uh, ok. What else can she do? Whatever the author feels like, apparently! Secondly, what person in their right mind, magical alternative universe or not, would go to such extreme lengths to quit somebody they hate without, I don’t know, trying ANYTHING else first! This was clearly forced into the story to advance the plot but it made no sense. Elspeth tries a second time to revive the kitten but discovers she actually can’t, so the cat is then dead. She had been on the fence about Valentina’s death plot, but about half a page later is plowing ahead like she was on board all along with something that we are now lead to believe won’t even work. In fact, with that in mind the ending then becomes pretty darn easy to predict.

4. THE ENDING. The. Ending. Sucked. If you hadn’t already guessed it, Valentina forges ahead with the ridiculously over-dramatic plan of faking her own death and her dead body has a funeral and is buried in the family tomb with Elspeth’s. Then, shocker, her “soul” doesn’t go back in! But Elspeth’s does, obviously. So she enters Valentina’s three day old corpse and finds herself alive again and able to be with Robert. Valentina then finds herself in ghost form trapped in the flat with Julia. Just desserts! BUUUUT not even! Because the rules go out the window once again when Julia suddenly discovers without any build up or hints or anything that she can carry Valentina’s ghost out of the flat in her mouth and Valentina flies away on the back of a crow. I can’t even. I’m dying under a landslide of atrocious plot devices. Valentina uses her little crow chariot to find Elspeth using her body to do some retail therapy and learns she is pregnant with Robert’s baby. Could she then fight Elspeth to regain control of her body? Or maybe possess the baby so she could torment Robert and Elspeth for screwing her over so hard? No, she does nothing. And then Robert leaves Elspeth when the baby is born because it’s not like it was just built up for the entire f***ing book that he was insanely in love with her and couldn’t live without her in his life. He steals a corpse to get her back and then he’s just like, Peace out!? THINGS MAKING NO SENSE. NO SATISFACTION. HOW DID THIS GET PUBLISHED.

There are so many other directions this story could have gone in that would have been far more clever and entertaining. How’s about Valentina’s body, which has been repeatedly mentioned to be weak and perpetually on the cusp of death (this information literally goes nowhere) can’t withstand Elspeth’s takeover and Elspeth dies a second death and readers rejoice at her deserved demise? Or any of the other alternatives mentioned above? Or Julia hunts those body snatchers down and uses her crazy twin-obsessed overbearing-ness to put things right? I felt like so much of the character development just wasn’t followed through on. If you are going to make a character super intense or super physically weak, then have it mean something later on. Otherwise what’s the point?

Oh, and the reason Elspeth forbade Edie and Jack from entering her loft? Turns out Edie is actually the real Elspeth and vice versa, and they pulled a fast one on ol’ Jack back in high school, swearing never to see each other again to keep Jack from finding out. So Valentina and Julia are actually Elspeth’s children. But whatever, none of that matters because Jack knew all along and no one ever brought it up.

To summarize:


Sorry not sorry, this book is deplorable.


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