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.


  1. I actually preferred The Time Traveller's Wife. Probably because it falls more into the "chick-lit" category. Not that it was fluffy, but was a more straight forward love story than Her Fearful Symmetry. I guess I'm just more of a lazy reader, because HFS had love themes too. You had to think about them more, though, and process all the weirdness going on with Elspeth and the neighbours too. I guess if Rachel McAdam can star in the movie it's chick-lit. If you can see Emma Thompson in it (as Elspeth), then it's not.

  2. While I have not read The Time Traveller's Wife, Amanda, you did lend me this book to read and I must say I enjoyed it. I agree it was hard to pin down into any category and must say the only central thing to the plot was the "mystery" of Elspeth. I would not classify it as chick-lit, mostly because it has a mystery/intrigue (almost) feel to it.

    But when you talk about "Is anything written by women for women" chick-lit, I'd say yes. Their entire focus is on a woman-centred axis, and if it's read by men, they can get a look into the "workings" of women. So to speak....

    When it comes to chick-lit, I'm amazed you didn't include the incomparable Spellman Files. Totally funny and heart-rending.

    As to Jane Austen, The Bronte sisters, etc., I don't think they can be classified as chick-lit, especially in the "modern" sense. They are writing more about the world/time they exist in and obviously rebel at, knowing they can be more and offer so much more than is expected or allowed from them. And note that many women of the era wrote under men's names just to be published.

    Once again, you've written a thoughtful and provocative review/rumination. Thank you.