Her Fearful Symmetry

The last book club meeting of 2009 – which coincided with the first night of Hanukkah – went well. We lit candles, consumed latkes (a.k.a. potato pancakes) IN THE PROPER MANNER, i.e. with applesauce and sour cream, and discussed literature.

I posted my initial impressions of Audrey Niffenegger’s much-anticipated (by me, anyway) second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, here at the end of September, but I’ll share some of the other points we discussed on Friday as well. [WARNING: SPOILERS!]

-Is there a villain, and if so, who? Is there a protagonist, and if so, who?

Here we noted that Elspeth was the only character with a (ferociously) strong will – the only one who seemed to be able to force things to happen the way she wanted them to. As Audrey herself says of Elspeth in an interview in Poets & Writers, “She’s very strong – a creature of will, really – and she always gets what she wants. On the other hand, the book is sort of about how getting what you want might not be a good thing.” The other characters are much more passive, seeming to float along without much direction or ambition: Robert consumed with grief, Martin hobbled by his OCD, Julia and Valentina co-dependent on each other. At the end of the book, Julia emerges as more of her own person, and her future seems hopeful, but “hero” might be a bit too strong of a term for her.

-Julia and Valentina’s relationship

Their closeness is more tell than show; but maybe closeness is the wrong word, and co-dependent is more accurate. Someone likened them to magnets – they’re drawn toward each other, but there is resistance, and therefore tension, as well.

-The improbability of Elspeth and Valentina’s plan, and the fact that Robert goes along with it

We all willingly suspended disbelief on entering into the story; it’s a ghost story, after all. But we mostly felt that this twist was not believable, and certainly not Valentina’s only option for separating herself from Julia. Also, there was some incredulity that Elspeth could do what she did to her own daughter. Opportunism is one thing, but…

-Martin and Marijke

More or less beloved by all; their phone/dinner date on Marijke’s birthday was cited as an especially touching scene. Of all the characters, Martin is certainly one of the most courageous, braving the outside world to reunite with his love.

-If Jack knew about Edie and Elspeth’s switch, why on earth didn’t he say anything sooner?

The only reason we could come up with was Edie’s formidable will. Even though she doesn’t get much screen time, as it were, she comes across as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type – a strong personality, like her twin – and even though Jack had a rather significant and valid point, Edie may well have refused to answer to it.

-Genetics, DNA, and other medical curiosities

“Mirror twins” such as Julia and Valentina, while extraordinarily rare, do exist. The phenomenon occurs when the fetuses separate after the seven-day mark after conception. Another interesting point: as Edie and Elspeth are identical twins, they have the same DNA, which means that Julia and Valentina share as much DNA with their mother as they do with their aunt.

-More from the Poets & Writers interview

“I wish there was a way to let everybody know when they’re twelve that being the kid that all the other kids think is a weirdo is actually a fabulous indicator of future amazingness.” -Audrey Niffenegger

“…Niffenegger received permission from [Jean] Pateman to model the character of Jessica after her. In the end, Niffenegger dedicated the novel to her, and in fact altered it in important ways so as not to offend her sensibilities.” -Interviewer Kevin Nance

Inquiring minds want to know: WHAT WAYS?

What I’m reading: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett

What I’m listening to: Dispatch, All Points Bulletin

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