Tag Archives: Audrey Niffenegger

A Not So Fine Labor Day

Raise the name Joyce Maynard in a crowd of readers and you’ll likely hear both strongly positive and strongly negative feedback.   The novella Labor Day appears to be Maynard’s shot at redemption as she produces a Joan Didion-like tale told in slow motion and factual tones.   Because there’s not a lot to the basic story, the slow storytelling lacks the grace of Audrey Niffenegger and the “just the facts” style lacks the icy precision we generally get from Didion.

The story is told from the perspective of Henry, a 13-year-old male who lives with his post-divorce loner mother Adele.   One day they make a trip to the local shopping mall together to buy clothes for the new school year.   In the hardware department of Priceline, Henry is approached by a tall man who says he needs help.   He’s an escaped state prison inmate named Frank, and he’s picked out Henry and Adele as the perfect people to hide him.   We follow the three characters for the next six days and nights, and there’s not much more to the story.

Because Maynard writes in Henry’s voice, Labor Day often sounds either juvenile or like a young adult (YA) story, depending on your tastes.   I would not be surprised to hear that some young people pick up this novella and enjoy it, but many adult readers may find it tiring as the telling never leaves first gear.   And, of course, not much happens.   It would be logical to think – and the typical reader will – that Frank will try to persuade Adele and Henry to leave the state or country with him; not a difficult prediction.   Is such an escape likely to be successful?   I’ll leave it to you to figure out the odds.

Maynard ends the story then provides an addendum wherein we move forward 18 years to see what happened to Henry, Adele and Frank.   It’s a touch that would work well in a film, but seems a bit forced and pointless here.   Most readers would prefer to use their imagination.

In the end, there are simply not a lot of life’s lessons to be learned in the tale of a mother and son who hide an escaped fugitive for less than a week.   This reader hopes that Maynard’s next novel is bigger and bolder, and more universal in appeal.

Note:   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Her Fearful Symmetry

her fearful kindle

Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger (Scribner, $26.99, 416 pages)

A simple ghost story, that’s what Her Fearful Symmetry is.   It’s the story of a woman, a twin, who dies and leaves her home and possessions in London to the twin daughters of her estranged sister.   The late Elspeth’s flat is located next to the dramatic Highgate Cemetery, which, itself, serves as a major character in this novel.   Based on this summary, a reader would not expect this to be a significant work.   The reader would be wrong, because this ghost story was written by Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), one of the best writers of our time.

Niffenegger creates a small, magical world where every thought, every word, every action of the main characters has significance.   Reading Symmetry is like watching a film shown in slow motion; her style is so arresting that it’s a challenge to look away.   What Sacramento’s Joan Didion is to non-fiction writing, Niffenegger is to the world of fiction.   Both are masters of icy realism, and it hardly matters what it is they write about.

Niffenegger may not convince you to believe in ghosts or time travel, but you will believe in her writing talents.   A perfect gift for a future novelist.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Twin Charms

last will“A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.”   – Caroline Gordon

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Broadway Books, 304 pages)

The Last Will of Moira Leahy is a book that takes its readers to a different world.   It is a novel of charm, mystery, of things that cannot easily be explained and of faith.   Faith in fate (often hard to come by, often rationed) and in the journey one is supposed to take in this life…   Faith that the right lesson will be learned at the end.

This is a story of twins, something much in vogue at the current time.   Therese Walsh’s story shares some of the mysticism of Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.   It also paints twins as exotic creatures with shared language, thoughts and animal-like instincts.   Of course, the twins are not exactly alike.

The narrator Maeve Leahy, is the more cautious of the two – more cautious in love and in life.   She is a musician, a saxophone player, but she’s not the musical prodigy that her piano-playing twin Moira is.   It seems that Moira will lead the bigger life until a tragedy strikes.   Then Moira is frozen in place while Maeve is left to fend for – and find – herself.

After a period of depression, Maeve attends an auction where she spots a keris – an ancient and believed to be magical type of sword – similar to one she owned as a child.   Maeve finds that she has a need to discover more about the centuries old keris and this takes her on a journey to Rome, Italy.   It is on this journey that she learns more about herself, her twin, and life.   Life without fixed boundaries.   “Not everything in life can be measured or accounted for by the five known senses.”

First-time author Walsh has a smooth style with enough uniqueness that the reader desires to keep reading.   She stays ahead of the reader, too, as nothing predictable occurs.   I had just one small issue and that was the disconcerting movements  between present time and prior events.   It is not actually harmful in this case, but the baseline story is strong enough that it could well have been told chronologically.

This is one of those books where you delay getting to the last page, knowing the next book from this gifted author may not arrive for another year or two.   Nevertheless, this is a trip that is – without a doubt – well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Take Two…

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Author Audrey Niffenegger has captured the essence of a prize-winning novel and potential blockbuster movie with this, her second effort.   The story revolves around 20-something twins Julia and Valentina whose mom is also a twin.   The girls are bequeathed an apartment in London overlooking Highgate Cemetery by mom’s twin, who dies of cancer.   The catch – they must live in the apartment for one year.

The book’s scenes are set in meticulous detail.   There is an elegant balance between the quirky and the mundane, whether it is the characters themselves, their clothes or the rooms they inhabit.   Elspeth’s apartment is a treasure trove of books and furniture, easily pictured by the reader.   The same holds true for visualizing Valentina’s creativity in fashioning the twins’ clothing.   The action goes from laboriously slow, when Martin painstakingly scrubs the floors of his flat, to breathtakingly fast when Valentina is racing around London trying desperately to become her own person.Her Fearful Symmetry 6

Anyone lucky enough to read Symmetry will thoroughly enjoy vicariously traipsing around London and will definitely come to know their way around Highgate Cemetery.   The characters experience more than their share of emotional highs and lows.   Some are well beyond the usual range for ordinary people – read that non-twins.   If ever you’ve wondered what’s considered normal, this book will bring you into a whole new dimension that is entirely plausible.

Five stars – highly recommended.   The book far exceeded this reader’s expectations.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A guest – and second – review of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife).Her Fearful Symmetry 5

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What Comes After

Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger

If anyone else had written this story, I’d be tempted to say there’s not much to it.   Elspeth Noblin, knowing that she will soon die of cancer, leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces from the U.S., Julia and Valentina.   These are the daughters of Elspeth’s estranged sister.   Why does Elspeth desire to be united after death with the nieces she’s never seen?   What will they learn by living in Elspeth’s flat, wearing her clothes, surrounded by her former lover and friends?   Why is the flat in question located next to London’s Highgate Cemetery?   And why did Julia and Valentina’s mother separate herself from Elspeth?Her Fearful Symmetry 5

All of these questions are answered in due time in Symmetry’s 416 pages.   But this is not a fast read.   It is a work of slow, intricate and fascinating pace written by Audrey Niffenegger.   Yes, she is the woman who wrote the mega-selling novel The Time Traveler’s Wife.   In her own real life Niffenegger is a guide at Highgate Cemetery in London, while also living in Chicago.   (She lives in the worlds she writes about.)

I will not say more about the plot except to say that there is a ghost involved – actually three of them, before the puzzle is solved.   The real pleasure here is in the telling…   Niffenegger shows once again that she’s at the top of her game, on top of her craft.   As she delicately tells her story, we wait almost breathlessly for the next short chapter, the next development, the next conversation, the next thought from one of her characters.

Some writers write big, building up large stages and filling up every space.   Niffenegger seems to write in between spaces, in the ghostly void between life and death, now and the past, hopes and regrets.   It may be natural, then, that she wrote about time travel in the context of an everlasting love story.   Now she writes of a family’s hopes, loves and disappointments; matters which cannot be limited by the boundaries of life and death.

If this is not an absolute masterpiece, it is likely to be as close to one as we’ll be privileged to see this year (and maybe the next).

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife.Her Fearful Symmetry

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Something Completely Different…

Commoner 5Sometimes we need a change from the popular fiction novels set in the U.S.   One book that offers a definite change of time and scenery is the forthcoming Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler’s Wife), set in London.   Another is The Commoner, a novel recently released in trade paperback form.   This story takes us to post World War II Japan and moves us through a period of more than 55 years.   The author, John Burnham Schwartz, knows a lot about what he writes as he lived in Japan as a younger man; something he wrote about in his earlier novel Bicycle Days.

Schwartz does a fine job of creating a different world, emphasizing the unique features of Asian culture such as humility, respect, duty and class differences.   The latter comes into play as this is the tale of a young woman – a commoner – who is selected to marry the Crown Prince of Japan.   Initially, the proposal of marriage is rejected but Haruko Endo is compelled by duty to family and country to accept the offer from a future monarch.

It is very clear that Haruko will have difficulties once she enters the Imperial Palace grounds and joins the Royal Family.   One of the significant issues facing her is the fact that she was not the choice of the Empress, a domineering woman who usually gets her way.   Schwartz is at his best in creating the characters of the two families, both royal and common.   As a former gaijin, he does an excellent job of describing the very different world that is Japan, from its streets to its food to its birds, plants and flowers.   He even describes smells that he links with this different country.

The story flows freely for 351 pages and is quite a satisfying one for the reader.   But there are a few issues.   First, Schwartz’s writing is generally fluid but every now and then a rough spot appears.   For example, “The (fertility) test, in short said that one could; to be followed by the wedding, which declared that one must.”   Perhaps this would read better in Japanese; it comes across as severely awkward in English.

Secondly, there appear to be some problems in the editing down of the tale.   We learn that the Empress who precedes Haruko lives for a hundred years until she dies a natural death, and yet twice we see references to her “assassin.”   No assassination attempt is included in the story, and the reader has to wonder if and when it was deleted.

Finally, this is one of those unfortunate cases where the entire story is too well summarized on the rear book cover.   If you purchase this book, avoid reading the notes on the cover or everything will be given away too soon.  

All in all, I much enjoyed this unique trip to the Land of the Rising Sun as written by the Japanese-speaking and English-writing Schwartz.   A good read!

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