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HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

SymmetryI finally got around to reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. It came out in 2010 and was very hot on the book blogger circuit. I actually got a review copy of it at the time, but decided that it wasn’t my kind of book (despite really enjoying The Time Traveler’s Wifereviewed here) and eventually gave it away. Then I saw Her Fearful Symmetry on audio a few weeks ago at the library and decided to take it out. I also downloaded on my Kindle – the first book I have read on the device.

What a strange book. Her Fearful Symmetry is basically a ghost story, a gothic tale about identity and secrets and families. It centers around two sets of idential twins: Edie and Elspeth, who are estranged and in their 40s, and Julia and Valentina, who are Edie’s daughters. Elspeth dies of leukemia and leaves her entire estate, including her apartment in London, to her nieces, who live in Chicago and have never met her. The one stipulation is that Julia and Valentina must live in Elspeth’s apartment for a year, without their parents.

The theme that came up over and over for me was claustrophobia. Julia and Valentina are close to the point of having no life outside of each other. Valentina longs for independence from her bossy sister, while Julia relishes the role of caregiver and refuses to give her sister the space she craves.

There are veyr few other characters in the book. One is Robert, Elspeth’s boyfriend, who lives in the flat the girls’ apartment. Robert, who is writing a dissertation about the neighboring Highgate Cemetery, is grieving the loss of his girlfriend and starts to transfer his affections to her niece, Valentina. The other main character is Martin, their upstairs neighbor who suffers from OCD and cannot leave his flat. Martin’s wife has left him, and Martin has sunk further and further into isolation and his own obsessions.

Things get supernatural when Elspeth’s ghost returns to the flat and starts interacting with her nieces and Robert. She cannot leave the flat; she is ever-present. Valentina, who is intimidated by London, stays home more and more so that she can transcribe missives from Elspeth. Julia, meanwhile, becomes interested in Martin and tries to help him overcome his disease.

The characters are all trapped – in the past, in unhealthy relationships, by long-seated secrets that cannot be revealed. I found myself literally searching for air as I read it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s a sign of Niffeneffer’s skill as a storyteller. I wasn’t even bothered that much by the ghostly elements of the book, which would usually be something I would avoid. None of these characters is particularly likable (other than Martin), but they were certainly interesting.

Some plot twists toward the end (one foreseeable, one not) also heightened my interest in the book.

So here’s my advice – if you liked The Time Traveler’s Wife but think that Her Fearful Symmetry isn’t for you, as I did, give it a try. Even if you haven’t read Niffenegger before, keep an open mind about this one. I am not big gothic/supernatural reader at all, but I still enjoyed it. She’s a very talented writer and her books are original and incredibly memorable.

A word on the audio: The narrator is very British, perfect for the material. I hated her depiction of Julia and Valentina – not sure if it was her poor American accent or her attempts to make them seem listless and young, but they came across as even more juvenile and whiny than I think Niffenegger intended. Otherwise, her diction and delivery were perfect.


Q&A with Audrey Niffenegger and THE NIGHT BOOKMOBILE

I went to a reading last Saturday by Audrey Niffenegger from her graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile. It was a treat to hear her in person. I am a big fan of The Time Traveler's Wife, and I've always wondered about the genius behind the book.

Night Bookmobile The Night Bookmobile is about a woman who periodically encounters a bookmobile (always late at night) that contains every book she's ever read. She searches for the bookmobile and its kindly but distant librarian everywhere she goes, but she only finds it on rare occasions. When she does, she is happy and at peace - but what does the bookmobile mean, and why is it so elusive?

The Night Bookmobile shows Niffenegger's macabre side (which was always present in The Time Traveler's Wife), as well as her love of literature and reading. It's a quick but memorable read. It also showcases her considerable artistic talents – she has a degree in printmaking – through her drawings, which convey the loneliness of the narrator and the shadowy, nocturnal mood of the book.

After her reading, Niffenegger stuck around for a Q&A:

Inspiration for The Night Bookmobile The Night Bookmobile was originally a short story that became a comic. She was inspired by an H.G. Wells story, The Door in the Wall, about a kid who discovers a garden with panthers, fairies and magical creatures. She calls The Night Bookmobile a story about "the perils of reading too much" and admits that she "can find the dark side in pretty much anything I write about" and that she "has a bad habit of killing her characters".

Did you like the movie version of The Time Traveler's Wife compared to the book? Niffenegger hasn't seen the movie version, an act which she calls "cowardly". She read the script and felt that the film people were getting at something different from what she was. Writers have an advantage over screenwriters, who are trying to create a map for filmmakers to fill out. She recommends that screenwriters adapt short stories rater than novels so they don't have to smoosh an entire book into a screenplay. (She is writing the screenplay for Her Fearful Symmetry herself.)

Librarians play a large role in your books. Have any in particular inspired you? Many, and teachers too. There are a lot of librarians in The Time Traveler's Wife who are real people at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Thank you to Audrey Niffenegger for stopping by!


Tttw Last night, I saw the movie version of The Time Traveler’s Wife (reviewed on this blog here). I was a bit apprehensive about the movie, both because I feared that the movie wouldn’t do the book justice, and because I was dreading watching some of the more difficult scenes from the book. But I knew I had to steel myself and see it. Here is my take on book vs. movie, Time Traveler-style.

Warning: there are spoilers ahead, both of the book and the movie. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet, proceed with caution!

The movie The Time Traveler’s Wife has gotten mixed to negative reviews, but I have to say that I enjoyed it. I wonder what I would have thought had I not read the book (and would love to hear from anyone who has seen it but not read it), but I thought the movie was as faithful to the book as it could have been in two hours. There is a lot that the movie left out, but it covered the main plot points of the book – Henry’s mother’s death, his relationship with Clare, their friendship with Gomez, and the birth of their daughter.

The first part of the movie felt a little rushed – the early days when Clare is young and Henry is older, and their “courtship” during her teen years, are treated very quickly – and I felt that it left out some of the interesting elements of their early relationship, such as when they sleep together for the first time when she’s 18, and some of the getting-to-know-each-other scenes in Clare’s early 20s.

But the movie does a nice job of demonstrating the inevitability of their relationship, Clare’s frustration about not having been able to choose the direction of her life, and the depth of their love. I also liked that the movie was sort of dark and shadow-y in the way that the book was. Clare and Henry don’t live in bright, whitewashed settings in a sun-kissed golden Hollywood world – their lives were at times gritty and cold and sad and sort of messy. And the movie captured that well.

Casting-wise, Rachel McAdams was perfect. Just perfect. (How can she look so beautiful no matter what she is doing or wearing?). I didn’t love Eric Bana. I imagined Henry as a little more slight – Bana is tall and toned. He also seemed kind of mechanical. I know that Henry was a closed-off, walled person when Clare met him, but Bana’s portrayal of him never really let those walls come down (except when Alba was around, when he adopted that classic beatific parental gaze that Hollywood likes to use to convey that a character really, really loves his or her child).

Some things that the movie left out: Henry’s troubles at work due to his disappearing, the Ingrid storyline, the sexual episodes with Gomez and Clare, most of Clare’s relationship with her family, and Henry’s losing his feet (he does end up in a wheelchair but it’s not as bad as in the book). Henry’s impregnating Clare takes place in a car, instead of in bed with an older Henry sleeping next to them (which I found disappointing, because that was a memorable part of the book), and the final scene, when Clare is 80. My friend with whom I saw the movie thought that the movie ended on a more ambiguous, hopeful note, perhaps to satisfy a mass audience.

A few other quibbles… Bana doesn’t look different enough from scene to scene to cue the viewer about how old he is. Other than some grey hair at his wedding, he doesn’t really look that much older as the ceremony groom than he does as the first dance groom. And at the end of the movie, we’re supposed to think that he is wasting away, getting sicker and thinner, but he really doesn’t. The movie doesn’t convey the inevitability of Henry’s decline the way the book did.

Ok, so what did I like? For me, I just loved seeing this book play out on screen. Going through the same calculations and mystery-solving in the theater as I did while reading the book. And most of all, just giving in to the (admittedly sappy at times) love story between these two people who were bound to each other at the most basic and fundamental level.

I recommend seeing the movie, especially if you have read the book. I view it as sort of a companion piece for the book – it certainly doesn’t come close to replicating the experience of reading it, and the alternating first person narration, which was so effective in the book, is lost on the screen. But the movie doesn’t offend the book in any way, and I am very glad that I saw it.

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger

Time The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, came out in 2003. I remember reading about the book when it came out and knowing that I wanted to read it. I bought it, and on a September Saturday when a hurricane had knocked out our electricity, I read the first 80 pages or so by flashlight and liked it. I put it on my nightstand that evening, the power returned, and for some reason I never picked up the book again.

As fans of The Time Traveler's Wife know, the book has been made into a movie, and will be released on August 13. Knowing that the movie was coming out soon was good motivation for me to read the book now. (See Stuff White People Like #127 – which asserts that announcement of film adaptations create "a ticking time bomb whereby a white person must read the book in ADVANCE of the release of the movie. This is done partly so that they can engage in the popular activity of complaining about how the movie failed to capture the essence of the book." Hee.)

I think The Time Traveler's Wife is my favorite book so far of 2009. It is essentially a love story about Henry and Clare – Henry a librarian who frequently travels through time (usually involuntarily), and Clare a woman Henry meets when she is 6, and 7, and on and on throughout her life. The Time Traveler's Wife is a mind game – a constant puzzle to solve – as the reader encounters chapters in which Henry is 38 and Clare is 12, or Henry is 28 and Clare is 20, or some chapters in which two versions of Henry – the present Henry and the time traveler Henry – appear at the same time. Henry visits a young Clare repeatedly after he meets her when he is 28, which means that she knows him her whole life, whereas he only meets her after she finds him. There are twists and surprises throughout, as Niffenegger drops hints of events that are to come, that only make sense after they occur chronologically, rather than in Henry's time travels.

What I liked so much about this poignant book was Niffenegger's ability to convey, with precision and discipline, the vast emotional landscape of this couple's relationship, as well as their lives alone. I kept wondering how she planned the book – did she have a long timeline on which she plotted the key plot points, and then decided when – in reality or in time travel – they would happen?

Here is a passage I liked, where a 27-year old Henry goes back in time and sees his own 9-year old self, a moment he therefore experiences twice:

A translucent moment. I didn't understand, and then I did, just like that. I watch it happen. I want to be both of us at once, feel again the feeling of losing the edges of myself, of seeing the admixture of future and present for the first time. But I'm too accustomed, too comfortable with it, and so I am left on the outside, remembering the wonder of being nine and suddenly seeing, knowing, that my friend, guide, brother, was me. Me, only me, the loneliness of it.

There is also the moment when an 18-year old Clare sleeps with Henry for the first time – when he is 41, time traveling to see her. When he returns to his current life – in which he is married to a 33-year old Clare – her reaction to his return is mixed. Wistful, happy to see him, yet somewhat sad about his being with a younger version of her, a less complicated and weathered version. There are so many more moments like this, which explore patience, loss (of lovers, parents, children), and fate vs. free will. I could list dozens of them here, but it would be unfair to someone who hasn't read the book yet.

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. There are times when it is almost unbearably sad, but that made the reading experience that much richer.

Now I am awaiting the film version, with cautious excitement, hoping that it won't be Hollywoodized too badly. If you're interested, here's the trailer.