You may have noticed that I don’t write a lot of negative reviews here. Quite simply, while I delight in insulting my closest friends and companions, I don’t enjoy slighting strangers—what if they don’t like me?! Also, of course, I have impeccable taste in literature, so negative reviews are largely unnecessary.
Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry may have just given me the opportunity to break this rule.
I read Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago, before the movie/it was cool/you had heard of it/etc. I recall being bugged by a few things style-wise, but overall finding it a compelling read. (Though I never did get around to the movie… Nuts.) I had heard several good things about HFS and, when I found it at a thrift store for $1 (along with the similarly priced Running With Scissors and TK The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter), counted it as a win.
The plot of HFS centers mainly around twenty-year-old twin sisters Julia and Valentina. Their mother is also a twin, but has been estranged from her sister for years; the twins don’t remember meeting their aunt. Imagine their surprise, then, when a big fat letter shows up on their Lake Forest doorstep (where they still live with their parents… yikes), informing them that their aunt has died and left them her London flat. Said flat is Highgate cemetery-adjacent, located one floor above the flat of the aunt’s younger, cemetery-obsessed lover, and comes with a few stipulations: Julia and Valentina must live there for at least one year before selling it, and their parents are never to enter the flat.
Weird? Yes. But I love that kind of weird—I love cemeteries, all things British, and confusing last wills and testaments that involve secret family drama. I don’t love age-imbalanced relationships, almost incestuously close siblings, or, ultimately, HFS.
As an example, let’s try this excerpt on for size:
Julia and Valentina Poole walked off the plane and into Heathrow Airport. Their white, patent-leather shoes hit the carpeting in perfect step, with movie-musical precision. They wore white kneesocks, white pleated skirts that ended four inches above their knees, and plain white T-shirts under white woollen coats. Each twin wore a long white scarf and wheeled a suitcase behind her. Julia’s suitcase was pink and yellow terry cloth, and had a Japanese cartoon-monkey face that leered at the people walking behind her. Valentina’s blue-and-green suitcase’s cartoon face was a mouse. The mouse looked both regretful and shy.
The tone is almost saccharinely sweet. And also, blech. The hell is a terry cloth suitcase?
This is also now two for two for me in books with age-imbalanced relationships. At least Running With Scissors made sure to point out how weird and unnatural it was for a 13-year-old boy to be sleeping with a 35-year-old man (or, at least, made sure to point out how weird and unnatural it was that no one seemed to find it weird and unnatural). HFS, however, casually meandered through the twins’ man-adventures, which included their dead aunt’s lover (!!) and a fifty-year-old man with debilitating OCD. The main male objections to these attentions ran along the lines of “Oh no! Feelings! I’m no good for you. I have baggage!
Also, I’m way too old for you!” (In case you didn’t catch it, that last objection is crossed out because it didn’t happen.) Blech. I don’t like.
Also—these twins are over twenty years old, dress in the same clothes everyday, and have never spent a night not spooning in the same bed. Is this normal? As a non-twin, have I missed out on an integral part of siblinghood? (If so, I must say I’m relieved.)
I will say this much for HFS: It did not bore me. In fact, when things really started to pick up at the end (geez, I haven’t even mentioned all the ghosts in this book), I became almost incoherently angry at several characters. And to Niffenegger’s credit, she did not even attempt to have a nice, ends-tied-up conclusion for all her warped characters. They backed themselves into corners, monumentally screwed up their own lives and everyone else’s—and Niffenegger said, “Oh well. Your fault!” Karma victory for all!
So there it is. My one negative review so far (at almost exactly a year into this blogging adventure!) and, hopefully, the last one for a while. If you comment on this full of Niffenegger love and hatred for me and everything I say, I promise I will not retaliate. (Unless you are a real-life friend. Then all bets are off.)