catching up: Niffenegger weekend

Hello there. Sorry I’m slow to cover my weekend’s reading for you. Here I am now!

This was a fun weekend because the Husband did a marathon mountain bike race while I watched and supported for a change. He did much better than he had hoped, and seemed to do it pretty easily too, so I’m very proud. I had a good time watching a number of friends do very well, in fact.

I also managed to finish Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and then Her Fearful Symmetry (finished today at lunch), so it’s been a Niffenegger-heavy weekend. I didn’t intend to read two of hers in row, but was already reading and enjoying Time Traveler when a library patron brought me her personal (autographed) copy of Symmetry, to borrow – thereby making me feel like I should read it next…

So first things first. The Time Traveler’s Wife was very enjoyable! I felt like it had a little lighter feel to it earlier in the book, then gets a little more thoughtful, dark, contemplative, and frightening later in the book. This is actually appropriate, for Clare’s point of view, since she takes her time-traveling husband lightly when she’s younger, only realizing risks & dangers as she grows older. When she is an adult and understands all the implications, things become very frightening indeed. I found all the emotions and reactions pretty human, and was very absorbed in the characters. I also found the novel’s implied questions, about fate, sequence, causality, responsibility, forgiveness, and other issues of humanity, to be compelling. The time-travel construct worked well for me. I was impressed by a beautiful, romantic story with believable characters. I was also impressed with some of the emotional scenes Niffenegger managed to “paint” for us, like the dream sequences on pages 373-4.

And, I found myself crying. Again! Something strange must be happening to me. At least I can say it’s NOT my biological clock :) because I continue to be just a little impatient with all the maternal stuff in several books I’ve been reading over the last several months: The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger; Still Missing, Chevy Stevens; Look Again, Lisa Scottoline; I’d Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman; My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult – just off the top of my head. I’m a bit fed-up with motherhood and maternity as themes, and have decided to purposefully avoid (in the near future at least) Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I’ve been interested in for months now, because it sits pretty squarely on those themes.

I give this one a strong rating and am glad I finally picked it up.

With some hesitation, then, I picked up Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry as my next read. I hesitated because I rarely read the same author, or even theme or style or subject matter, back-to-back. I don’t even think I can remember reading back-to-back in a series. I guess I just feel like my brain likes a break, a palate-cleanser if you will. So with slight trepidation I began the next book; and I think I was right to be a bit nervous, because the first book ends with a death and a partner mourning, and the second book begins with a death and a partner mourning, and really never gets much happier than that. No, they’re not serial, just continue a similar tone.

Plot synopsis: Twins Valentina and Julia do not know their mother’s twin sister Elspeth until they inherit Elspeth’s London flat. There are two conditions: they must inhabit the flat for a year before they can sell; and their parents cannot set foot in it. Upon arriving in London, these ethereal, deeply attached young girls meet their interesting neighbors: Martin is an endearing but very sick obsessive-compulsive; and Robert was Elspeth’s lover, and is having quite a bit of trouble “letting go” her memory. They also get to know their mysterious aunt.

The melancholic, obsessive grief that starts this book doesn’t really let up. Perhaps I simply wasn’t in the mood to be made to feel this way, but I didn’t *love* this book as much as I did Time Traveler. I think it was almost every bit as well-crafted, and the emotions (while disturbing) still rang true; but it was just a bit too creepy. I won’t go any further for fear of spoiling, but this was a creepy book. To be fair, I had trouble putting it down; I think it was well done. But it didn’t feel as good. I think The Time Traveler’s Wife accomplished a feat: it took me through a range of emotions and life stages and, if it didn’t tie things up in a happy cozy way, at least it tied things up in a way that felt very complete. Her Fearful Symmetry, on the other hand, explored dark emotions rather deeply without a great deal of light. The paranormal aspects in the first book were a quirky vehicle through which to experience emotions and relationships and ask interesting questions. The latter read more like a ghost story (more and more so as the story develops), with an ending that was a little Poe-like in its creepiness.

I preferred the first, obviously, although if you were a bit more open to the ghost-story aspect, you might like the second better than I did. I believe even objectively, though, the first was a greater achievement. Or maybe I just shouldn’t overindulge in Niffenegger, hm?

I’ve heard a fair amount about her recent graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, as well. Librarians and libraries and books play an important role in Niffenegger’s work in general (Henry from The Time Traveler’s Wife is a librarian; Elspeth from Her Fearful Symmetry is a bookseller), and the starring role in this latest. But the consensus amongst the library groups I hear from seems to be that her treatment of the librarian in The Night Bookmobile is downright and absolutely creepy. They don’t seem to like it. Again, maybe we just need to be looking for a ghost story? Or is there really something “wrong” with these stories? Presumably there are readers out there who love them. Any thoughts?

9 Responses

  1. Yes! Yes yes yes! I love the way you characterize the path of Time Traveler’s Wife following Claire’s emotional path.

    I’ve read it twice but it’s been a few years, so apologies if I get this detail wrong…. (SPOILER ALERT) It seemed to me an extremely selfish but very human thing that Henry did in telling Claire she would see him one last time — because then she spent the entire rest of her life waiting for that brief moment.

    I loved the matter-of-fact attitude that their daughter had about time travel, but I admit to being a little concerned for her safety. A nude man showing up is kooky or creepy, but I worry about her being particularly victimized — although maybe we’re supposed to interpret it that her greater self-confidence and lack of guilt about stealing when she has to (clothes, etc.) give her greater safety.

    And on to Her Fearful Symmetry. I quite hated it, actually. The shyer of the twins (SPOILERS AGAIN FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ IT) makes no protest against her sister’s dominance for years and years and years, but suddenly that’s her only possible effective rebellion? To me, the only likeable character in the whole book was Martin — his progress towards recovery was truly moving.

    I admit that I’m not objective, though. I can’t forgive the kitten incident!

  2. I feel you on ALL counts. Amazing how alike we are in our reading preferences outside of sci fi, hm? :) Yes I definitely liked Martin the best. He was sympathetic, imperfect but human. Yea, [SPOILER] Valentina’s sudden suicidal tendencies were a bit out of the blue; I don’t think that part was believable to the reader but to Elspeth and Robert who wanted to believe it, you know? And yes, I struggled with the kitten too. Does it help that Valentina still gets to keep and play with her?

  3. No, alas, it doesn’t help that she still gets to play with the kitten. The kitten wasn’t given a choice! How does this interfere with its nine lives?!?! (OK, now I’m being silly, I admit!)

    I finished proofreading/reading E.M. Delafield’s Consequences by the way. Much more grim than Thank Heaven Fasting in many ways.

  4. Oh dear. I’m not in the mood for grim today. Thanks for the update though. :) Thank you for that lovely copy of Thank Heaven Fasting, too. It’s wonderful to have.

  5. […] Well, I have Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, by Steven Watts, waiting for me on my desk at home. It’s a library book (from the public library, not my library), so it has a deadline attached to it. That should definitely come up soon. I dabble in The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and This Book is Overdue! by Marilyn Johnson here and there; I pick them up and put them down around the house. Perhaps one of those will get full-time treatment one day. But it’s always a crapshoot to see what I’ll read next! I’m still interested in Emma Donoghue’s Room, too, but I’m not sure I can stomach the maternalism at this moment (see an earlier post). […]

  6. […] a good start! Looks like I’m going to enjoy two books in a row from the same author, which isn’t always the case. And I just couldn’t be more excited about how much reading I’ll get to do on vacation, […]

  7. […] theme of maternity, parenting, mother-child bonding, family, etc. I’ve mentioned this before and it bothers me somewhat. I wonder if this is a recent theme in publishing? Or just the ones […]

  8. […] Missing by Chevy Stevens Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger Look Again by Lisa Scottoline Love You More by Lisa Gardner These Things Hidden by Heather […]

  9. […] Austen 3    The Book Thief    Markus Zusak 4    Jane Eyre    Charlotte Bronte 5    The Time Traveler’s Wife    Audrey Niffenegger 6    The Lord of the Rings    J. R. R. Tolkien 7    The […]

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