Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry

Sorry about my delay in posting, we've been sick with what appears to be the bubonic plague (or strep throat, whichever you prefer) at our house. Now we're all rehabilitating and mostly healthy, so time to get back on top of the blogging! This post will be a combined rumination/book review.

In the ruminating category, I've been thinking a lot about the phrase "chick lit" lately. Along with "chick flicks," this tag is given to books/movies supposedly written by and for women that will have minimal appeal to men. Now, there are certain books and films that I have no trouble categorizing this way, such as my beloved Shopaholic series, which fit the category of light and fluffy, with happy endings. However, there's an implication in the phrase "chick lit" that is somewhat patronizing. After all, the "chick" writing this blog does not only read books that are about love and relationships, and whether or not the heroine will end up with her man at the end. Are all books written by women only for women, or is there a universality of audience that male authors achieve? After all, there's no "guy lit" category that I'm aware of, aside from humour books such as " The Bro Code," etc.

My feeling is that there are some authors who write with women specifically in mind, and thus end up in the chick lit category. While I enjoy reading many of these books as light reads, I do notice that they tend to be predictable and generally center around the heroine's love life/relationships. Not many men I know (okay, not ANY!) would pick these books up on their own, just as they only go to chick flicks if dragged by the girl they're trying to please. That doesn't mean they're incapable of enjoying them (like my dad and Sleepless in Seattle or my husband and The Devil Wears Prada), but they are not the target audience.

On the other side of the equation, there are authors such as Tom Clancy whose books are seen as appealing mostly to men, with their heavy military terminology and technical passages. Yet many women (including myself) have read and enjoyed these books. I have run across male authors whose portrayal of female characters have left me raising my eyebrows or laughing, and I'm sure the same is true regarding some female authors. Yet, these books still have an appeal to both genders, and are not necessarily only FOR one gender or the other.

Looking at some classic authors, such as Jane Austen and others who pioneered the female author role, are they "chick lit" writers, since their inner world of women is the focus of their books? This is a difficult question to answer, given that their "classic" status seems to "elevate" their titles above the average girly book. I certainly wouldn't put the Brontes in this category, and my love of Austen resists this idea, yet many who read these works are women.

I guess I have ambiguous feelings about chick lit. There's so much humour and good old fuzzy feeling in these enjoyable books, yet I feel that all works by female authors need not fall in this category. This leads me to the book review I intended for this post (sorry, it's going to be a long one!). Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry is a haunting and intriguing read that certainly can be recommended to readers of both genders. This is her second full length novel, with The Time Traveller's Wife as her debut novel. Having read Niffenegger's first novel, I wasn't too sure I would like this one. While interesting in how convoluted the timeline was, I didn't feel very connected to the story of The Time Traveller's Wife. Yet, when I picked up this novel to read the back cover, I felt enticed by the possibilities of the book.

It's hard to determine who the protagonist of the story is, but twin sisters Julia and Valentina are central to the plot. Their mother's twin sister Elspeth dies in England, and leaves her estate to the girls, including an apartment that they are required to live in for one year if they are to inherit. However, Edie, the twins' mother is forbidden from setting foot in the apartment. That, and the fact that Elspeth and Edie have not seen each other after a rift more than twenty years old divided them sets an interesting stage. The nature of sisterhood is explored, but also the extra closeness of being twins. The older twins have severed their relationship, while the younger twins are dangerously codependent. As they undertake this unusual journey to inheritance, Julia and Valentina reveal how different they are on the inside, and how too much togetherness can endanger even the closest of bonds.

Then there is the mystery of what happened  between Elspeth and Edie all those years ago, which is slowly revealed as the story progresses. In addition to the younger twins, Elspeth is central to the story since, although dead, she is not gone. Within a few chapters, this novel takes an interesting twist, and goes places I didn't imagine when I read it's cover. I don't want to give away more, you'll have to read it.

The flat is one of three in a building containing the supporting characters of the novel. Robert, Elspeth's much younger and grief-stricken lover, could be one of the novel's central characters, but I hesitate to classify him that way. Even though his role in the story is large, he seems so incidental. He is left to the twins' along with Elspeth's possessions, although before she dies she tells Robert she is leaving the twins to him. Robert progresses through different stages of his grief, but really just seems a part of the scenery Julia and Valentina encounter in England. He is studying and works in the nearby Highgate Cemetery, a place that is so present throughout the story that it almost becomes a character in its own right. Robert almost seems to be merely an extension of Highgate.

I found the twins' other neighbour Martin much more interesting. Martin lives in the flat above the girls and suffers from crippling OCD. Niffenegger's portrait of this illness is fascinating, with an excellent description of the difference between obsessions and compulsions, and how they are interrelated. This is so well woven into the chapter introducing Martin that the reader is given a mini psychology lesson without realizing it. Martin's story line operates almost entirely independent of the main story, only briefly intersecting at Elspeth's funeral, and in the friendship he develops with Julia. Martin's wife leaves him at the start of the novel, and his journey to win her back, ironically, provides some sanity to the novel. Between the codependence of the twins, the creepy (in my opinion) relationship Valentina and Robert form, and the way Elspeth influences the twins' lives in England, the rest of the story has a barely controlled chaos about it. The orderly outer lives of the characters mask inner chaos, while Martin's outer chaos covers a simple story. I think this is a clever juxtaposition on the part of Niffenegger.

Overall, this a book well worth the read, and though written by a woman, Her Fearful Symmetry is definitely not in the "chick lit" category. It's well written, as well as having an interesting story line, and is a definite improvement over The Time Traveller's Wife.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I've decided it's time to review a book on here, and I just finished re-reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Recently made into a movie, this book had initially caught my eye at Costco, but I didn't purchase it until a few months ago. My love for historical fiction inspired this pick, as well as the chance to peek at a culture with which I'm generally unfamiliar. The story is set in 19th century China, and is about two girls who are bound together as laotong, or "old sames." This prestigious joining into a life-long friendship raises the prospects of Lily, a second unwanted daughter from a "so-so" family, enabling her to raise in society. She and her friend Snow Flower, a girl from family in better circumstances, communicate through nu shu, the secret writing of women that men are not supposed to see or know about. These messages are passed along on their fan, and chronicle their journies through the difficult stages of their lives.

Immediately, the author lets us know through her first-person narration of the character Lily, that misfortune and misunderstanding will overtake Lily and Snow Flower. Born as girls into a culture that only values sons, these "useless branches" of the family tree endure footbinding, marriage, childbirth, political unrest, and changes in fortune. However, these obstacles are nothing to the unravelling of their cherished friendship that is based on misunderstanding. Knowing this will happen makes the earlier passages of the perfect soul match between the girls the more poignant to read.

Lisa See does a wonderful job detailing the lives of these girls, with each section of the book following the traditional life stages of Chinese girls. The chapter detailing footbinding was hard to read, but eye opening for me. Though I knew this practice was cruel, the way it was actually carried out was unknown to me. However, See not only faithfully depicts the agonizing process of footbinding, she shows us its significance in Snow Flower and Lily's society. The quality of a women's bound feet, as well as whether her feet are bound or not, said a lot about her character, her desirability, and her prospects in life. It is Lily's "perfect" feet that change her destiny, as well as that of her family.

One thing I enjoy about this book is that See doesn't superimpose 21st century beliefs on 19th century China. I find this is often a problem with historical fiction, where the characters act and think in a far more liberated manner than they would ever have done in that era. Although progressive thinking is not entirely missing from classic works of fiction, it's often glaringly obvious when an author's beliefs supercede that of a realistic character of that time period. See avoids this pitfall, and although Lily and Snow Flower long for some control over their lives, they accept their limitations, and try to work through them in a traditional manner, using their nu shu to give themselves voices.

The style of writing is easy to read, and at times almost feels poetic in its flow. Lily's voice, spoken as an 80 year old widow looking back on her life, is convincing, but provides enough suspense by being first-person. We don't know the motives of the other characters, or what Snow Flower is thinking, until Lily herself finds out.

I really enjoyed this book, and have since read everything else that Chapters carries by Lisa See. I recommend it as a good read that goes deeper than "chick lit" often does. Well worth picking up. How have you found it, if you've read this book? What are you reading now that you're really enjoying?