Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

So for my fourth week I decided to read an entertaining, and compelling fiction book. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is a haunting tale about the complications of love, identity, and sibling rivalry. The novel opens with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who bequeaths her London flat and its contents to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister back in Chicago. These 20-year-old dilettantes, Julie and Valentina, move to London, eager to try on a new experience like one of their obsessively matched outfits. Historic Highgate Cemetery, which borders Elspeth's home, serves as an inspired setting as the twins become entwined in the lives of their neighbors: Elspeth's elusive lover, and scholar of the cemetery, Robert; Martin, an agoraphobic crossword-puzzle creator, who suffers from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin's devoted but trapped wife; and the ethereal Elspeth herself, struggling to adjust to the afterlife. Niffenegger brings these quirky, troubled characters to marvelous life, forcing the reader to relate to, and become compassionate for them.

Not that long ago I was watching TLC program on a Sunday afternoon with my husband. It was essentially about nature versus nurture with sets of twins. They looked at all types of similarities and differences of twins not only that grew up together in the same household, but also twins that were separated and grew up in very different homes, communities, and religions. It was amazing to see how some things like interests and facial expressions, were the same even when a set of twins were raised separately. Other things, such as jobs and children, most often varies within a set of twins. While reading Her Fearful Symmetry, it was interesting to think back to this show, and it gave me more insight and understanding into the relationships between Valentina and Julia, and Edie and Elspeth.

I can’t imagine having a twin, I don’t even have a sister. I guess like most things it’s pretty much impossible to fully imagine and understand something that you have never experienced. But what would it be like to have someone dress the same as you; do the same things you did (or you do the same things they did), always be thought of as one person, inseparable in the eyes of others? Now, obviously many sets of twins have been able to lead happy, healthy lives, separate from each other. The stories of Valentina and Julia, and Edie and Elspeth are a bit extreme and dysfunctional, but it still gets you thinking. I doubt that I would react as extremely as Valentina, but I am not sure I could handle having nothing of my own. Being forced to do something, or not do something, like go to school, start a career, or even have sex, would lead to a great deal of resentment, and a life of full of unhappiness. I don’t blame Valentina for wanting to get away from that, however it makes me sad that she felt unable to stand up for herself. On the other hand, it was frustrating to see how Julia, knew what should and could be done to create a much happier and balanced life for herself and Valentina, but was unwilling to do it. This is a story of human relationships and bonds, taken to the extreme with a cast of twins.

Martin, the twins neighbor who lives upstairs, suffers with severe OCD, and although he was a secondary character, I really loved his story. Niffenegger's rendering of OCD is the most painful and seemingly realistic depiction that I've come across. She provides a little window into the reality of people and families who have suffered from OCD, but she also teaches you to understand and accept it. within the first few chapters, I became curious about Martin, and as the pages turned, I eventually began to yearn for him too succeed.

I pretty much read this book anywhere and everywhere. I couldn't get through the pages fast enough, and therefore read it all over town. I read in the mornings while waiting for my coffee, while on hold with the cable company, at red lights, and even while my husband filled up the car with gas. I always had it in my bag, and even if I didn’t get the chance to read it while out of the house, I didn’t mind lugging around the extra few pounds in my purse. Just knowing that I had it, and could read it if opportunity presented itself, made the extra weight worthwhile.

Her Fearful Symmetry is the kind of book that you need to read with at least one other person. It’s an exciting read and it evokes so many questions and thoughts. Why did that happen? She did what? What was he thinking? I’m so glad he did that, and many more. So my tip is find a friend, or a couple friends that can appreciate a good story and read it together. You will be calling each other at all hours wanting to talk things out, so make sure your phone is charged.

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