Thursday, October 11, 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

My first fascination with Highgate Cemetery came as I was reading Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels, a novel of the suffragette movement in England, more specifically London. And then I read Neil Gaiman's Newbery winning book, The Graveyard Book that also takes place in part in Highgate. Her Fearful Symmetry has been on my "to read" list for a number of years. I have wanted to tour Highgate but have never really had the chance until now. We will be visiting there in the near future and so the impetus to get this book read NOW!

The title of the book comes from the first and last stanzas of William Blake's The Tyger: 
TygerTyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 
The poem contrasts the creation of the dark and light, innocence and experience, the tiger and the lamb. Niffenegger's novel is wrapped around those contrasts also as the reader witnesses dependence and desire for independence, incarnate and spectral love, and veracity and deception.  Valentina and Julia are twins living in the suburbs of Chicago. Valentina is the weaker of the two. She suffers from asthma and has a malformed heart valve. Julia is the stronger and more domineering twin. Their mother Edie is also a twin, estranged from her sister Elspeth who lives in London in a flat that overlooks Highgate Cemetery. The twins receive news that there aunt has died of leukemia and left her flat and its contents to them. Even more confusing is the fact that they are required to live there for at least a year before selling it. And so the two, college dropouts at age 21 and not sure of what they want to do in life, move to London. They discover the neighbors in the house are Robert, the partner of Elspeth who took care of her as she died and Martin, a man suffering from OCD whose wife has left him to live in Amsterdam. 

Unsure as to the reason they have inherited the flat, Julia and Valentina take to exploring London and getting to know their neighbors, including Highgate. And then the ghost of Elspeth returns and Julia, Valentina, and Robert begin communicating with her. Elspeth is strong-willed and even in death wields influence over the three. Julia and Valentina take in a little white kitten who is accidentally killed by Elspeth who then restores its soul to him. With those powers now brought to light Elspeth and Valentina begin to consider how they might enable her break away from the overbearing Julia.

There are subplots involving Robert and his work at the cemetery (which rhymes with symmetry). He is a guide and is working on a doctoral thesis on the history of the cemetery. Martin becomes known as a recluse whom Julia is trying to help by feeding him vitamins that are really Anafranil. Martin realizes this and plays along as he attempts to break out of the holds that the OCD has on him. 

Egyptian Avenue by By nick.garrod on Flickr
Throughout the novel characters and events are not as they appear. There are twists, mysteries, and revelations that will catch the reader off guard. What remains constant is Highgate, a place where the bodies of so many are buried and where the souls of those who have died are gathered. Niffenegger captures the essence of the grounds as well as the reality of it. Her descriptions are vivid, detailed,  and enticing for a visitor. The reader can picture the Colonnade, the gates, and Egyptian Avenue. 

Despite garnishing negative reviews, I really enjoyed this book. Of course my love of England and all things London didn't hurt. I was fascinated by the interactions of the twins and them with Robert, Martin, their parents, and of course, Elspeth. You knew the secret of the estrangement of Edie and Elspeth would eventually surface at some point. You had a suspicion of what it would be, but little did you know how it would finally manifest itself. The foreshadowing of the ending was subtle and in the surprising. A great read and a tantalizing tome before visiting the cemetery. Can't wait!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Really not sure where to start with this one. Jeffrey Eugenides will be speaking at the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Monday night series in October 2012. It is with that in mind that I picked up The Marriage Plot. On the surface and from reading the book jacket blurb, the reader would get the idea that this is a novel about a love triangle with very literary undertones.
"It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his wife. Over the next year, as the members of the triangle graduate from college and enter the real world, they will be forced to re-evaluate everything."
The novel begins on graduation day at Brown University with Madeleine's parents showing up to take her to breakfast. She has spent the previous night carousing with friends and is no way going to allow her parents in her apartment. What seems like a very straightforward narrative soon eclipses into a very erudite literary treatise about French theorists and theory. I must admit, not being an English major,  I was and am still very confused by the terminology and the entire concept of semiotics. As the reader follows Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell through their year after graduation there are some very interesting and engaging chapters and also some very unmemorable ones that I just wanted to be over.

Madeleine is a very spoiled, rich young woman who really doesn't know what she wants out of life. She is predictably struggling with how to survive after college in an economically challenged environment. She falls back to what was at one time a relationship with a real person and not one from one of her Victorian novels. Unfortunately, she keeps returning to that relationship and is nothing more than a doormat.  Leonard knows what he wants from life, but just can't seem to get there as his manic depressive state gets in the way. Mitchell, for me, was the most likable of the three. Yes, he was reflective to the point of obsession with religion, but he seemed to have a plan and goal and was working through the obstacles to get to it, both in career and romance.

It seems to me that this novel is overwritten. Not having read anything else by Eugenides, I am not sure whether it is typical of his style or if it is unique to this novel. We read the same story in different sections of the novel, not only when being narrated by a different character. Madeleine was whiny and flat. The protracted descriptions of a mentally ill person give insight into the disease state, but at the same time places the reader in an uncomfortable position of being a secret observer to the demons. Throughout the novel it almost seemed that Mitchell was an afterthought - included to complete the triangle of the marriage plot. There is a level beyond the narrative where the author brings the themes of love vs. infatuation, reality vs. illusion, and the physical and secular vs. spiritualism to light. It's unfortunate that the reader must toil get there.

And so I am left ambivalent. At times I was engrossed, but then, at times I struggled and plodded and wanted to be done with it. I will be anxious to hear Jeffrey Eugenides speak about his book. Perhaps I should also read The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex to get a more balanced perspective on this Pulitzer Prize winning author.


The 39 Steps by John Buchan

Oops! Read this a bit ago and did not post. The 39 Steps is more like a novella than a full-fledged novel. It was written in 1915 and first appeared in serial form in a popular British magazine. It has served the basis for a loosely conceived adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock for his film  of the same title that was released in 1935. It is also the parent work for the stage adaptation now appearing in London.  I wanted to read it before seeing the play in London later in the year. Like the film adaptation, the play is very LOOSELY based on the book. 

Set in 1914 The 39 Steps is one of the earliest examples of the spy novel. Its protagonist and narrator is Richard Hannay who becomes entangled in intelligence that informs him that the Greek premier is going to be assassinated by German operatives. The informant who delivers this message to Hannay is found the next day murdered in Haney's flat. Figuring that he is the most likely suspect, Hannay escapes London for Scotland. What ensues is twisted series of escapes, retreats into hideaways, and the culminating solution to the intelligence report. Typical of even today's spy novels, there are a multitude of characters and plot layers designed to confuse the reader. 

This was a fairly quick read and I was anxious to see the movie. However, Hitchcock took much liberty in his adaptation. To say loosely adapted is an understatement. From reading reviews of the theatre performance, it seems evident that The 39 Steps has been turned into a somewhat comedic play with only 4 actors. 

A good read to give some literary background to a standard genre today.