Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fearful is Right!

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After the popularity of The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger's next novel was hotly anticipated by many. I went into it knowing nothing more about it than what The New Yorker had to say. I finished it last night and am still not sure what to think.

I may have been my own worst enemy in reading this book, which is about two sets of twins. I had a hard time getting a handle on the older twin, Elspeth, whose death sets in motion the events of the book. Elspeth was a rare book dealer who lived in London. Because of these facts, and her name, I pictured her as an old woman. Yet, she had a lover, a fondness for spiky-heeled shoes, and a twin whose own twin daughters are 20.

I also had a hard time getting a handle on the younger twins, Julia and Valentina. I kept picturing a set of twins I saw on that show, "Intervention." Those twins (one of whom was also called Julia) had a bizarre, unhealthy dependence on one another and a serious shared eating disorder. They had dropped out of college and spent all of their time hanging out together, sleeping in the same bed, eating the exact same number of calories and moving the same amount of steps. Setting aside the eating disorder, Julia and Valentina seemed to me to have a similarly unhealthy relationship. Julia was the "dominant" twin who made all of the decisions. Valentina merely goes along with them, always.

Elspeth, for reasons never explained, decides to leave all of her worldly possessions to her nieces, who have never met her. Elspeth and her twin, Edie, parted ways over 20 years ago when Edie stole her fiance and moved to America with him. There are strings attached to Elspeth's mysterious gift: the girls have to live in her flat for one year, and their parents aren't allowed to set foot inside of it.

The girls decide to go. There, they meet Elspeth's lover, Robert, who's writing a dissertation on the famous Highgate Cemetery nearby. They also meet Martin, who suffers from severe OCD and sets crossword puzzles. I thought the book started to get creepy here, when Valentina and Robert start to become attracted to one another (especially the scene where Valentina shows up for a date dressed in Elspeth's clothes) and Julia and Martin also develop an attachment, despite the fact that Martin has a son Julia's age and is still devoted to the wife who left him earlier that year.

The book takes a bizarre turn when Elspeth explodes back into the story, as a ghost. Of all the visions of the afterlife I've ever read about, Niffenegger's has to be the most depressing. Elspeth is trapped in her old flat, but powerless at first to do much of anything. With no body, she can't read books, watch TV, or engage in any other diversion. As the book goes one, she gets more powerful, able to write messages in the dust and engage in using a Ouija board. Many writers throughout human history have imagined the afterlife to be beautiful or terrifying. It's a bit depressing to see it represented mostly like being stuck in a waiting room for all eternity.

It just gets weirder from there, though. I won't say too much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for anyone who wants to read the book. I'm still not sure how I felt about it. The reviews on are very mixed and seem to be written mostly by people who enjoyed her first book. Many felt confused or gypped by the ending, and I guess I did too.

Although I didn't hate the book, I can't entirely side with those who found it to be wonderful. The first half of it really dragged. The second half was creepy, and not in a good way. It had a lot of unpleasant elements, but they weren't unpleasant in any interesting or poignant way. They didn't challenge you like Lolita or make you feel deeply like The Memory of Running. They were just garden-variety unpleasant, like mold on bread or a bald dude in a thong or something. It's certainly an unusual book, but I had such a hard time buying into it that I guess I can't really reccomend it, although it did instill in me a desire to return to London to tour Highgate Cemetery.