Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

MCMSaturday, November 28, 2009

I don't have much time to read anything these days, but this week I found myself with some non-wired time to kill, so I decided to read Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry, a book I've been desperate to see.

For those that don't know, Ms Niffenegger's first book, The Time Traveller's Wife, is almost the perfect science fiction book... there's a logical foundation that serves as an engine to the human drama that drives the story. It's brilliantly constructed, beautifully written, and I don't think I've met a single person that hasn't fallen in love with it. There are very few books I would blindly recommend everyone read, but that is definitely one.

That said, Symmetry is one of the biggest let-downs I've had in literature in a very long time.

Here's the thing: this book could be great. It could be brilliantly constructed and beautifully written and everything that I wanted it to be, but it needed a few more drafts to get there. At the halfway mark, I was getting impatient with the story, but I held out hope that it would all make sense at the end. By the last quarter, I was becoming less and less sure. And when I finished the last page, I slammed the thing shut and threw it across the room. I never do that. But it pissed me off that much.

Since it's a favourite practice of editor/agent blogs to pick apart Golden Rules That Were Broken, I've decided to list my biggest complaints here:

  • Switching POV mid-scene. And seriously, not even just once. In some cases, we switch POV several times ON A PAGE. You get confused figuring out whose head you're in, because the sentence before was the other person in the conversation. For a while, I assumed this was a stylistic choice that would pay off in the end. No such luck.
    Now, some will say that you can break any rule if you do it well. I would argue that in this case, it was not done well. In fact, I would argue that if any self-published author had DARED to do this kind of thing, they would have been roasted as "amateur" or "just not ready for publication." Reworking the manuscript into something where that wasn't necessary might have been hard work, and it might have taken a lot of structural re-thinking, but it would have been worth it. The alternative is a big jumble of confusing prose with no real anchor.
  • Reading everyone's thoughts on a continual basis. This may just be one of my personal preferences, but I really hate it when you see a character's thoughts in the middle of a conversation. I'm a bit of a "show don't tell" fanatic of late, but seriously, if you can't convey the character's state of mind without writing it, bluntly, in italics, you're doing it wrong. I can forgive it once in a while, but in this book, you have conversations that run like this (not actual example):
    "I would like an egg." Today is Friday.
    "I will make you an egg." My feet hurt.
    "Scrambled please." I would like to go shopping.
    "You bet!" I should buy new shoes.
    This is just pure, unadulterated laziness. You're seeing two people's thoughts at the same time, and neither of them is expressing it in any way through dialogue or body language. If you can't tell what the character is not saying by this point in the book, you haven't drawn your characters well. Getting inside their heads is cheating, and it's not even CLEVER cheating.
  • Characters that make no sense. I won't give away spoilers, but I'll just say that the entire plot of this book depends on a character making a fairly momentous decision, and everything from the midpoint falls out of that. The problem is, there's absolutely NO grounding to give that decision any weight. The character is sketchily-drawn up to the moment they make up their mind, and when they announce their plan, you're left wondering if maybe it's a trick or a distraction or ANYTHING other than the character having a minor psychotic break out of nowhere, and doing something completely out of character. It's as if Ms Niffenegger knows all these characters inside out, and has figured out why this makes sense, but forgot to tell ANY OF HER READERS. And that is, again, lazy.

If you look at it, each of these issues could be corrected, and I'm sure the book would have been much better as a result. Another draft or two, a bit of a re-jigging, and it would have been just as great as I hoped it would be. But somewhere, someone dropped the ball. You could argue the author did that, turning out something this un-focussed... but in the end, the author needs good feedback to see their mistakes. I got that on The Vector, and it's helping me improve it in version 2. But here you have a best-selling author on her huge-bloody-advance second novel, and somehow she slipped through the cracks?

Traditional Publishing advocates, here is my concern: you say the problem with self-publishing is there is no editorial control. Yet this book is a disgrace. It undermines your argument so badly, it actually makes me sad for you. You're offloading marketing onto authors, you pay slimmer royalties than self-publishers get themselves, and now it appears you've given up any semblance of editing whatsoever. If you're not going to tell one of your beloved authors they need to take another crack at their manuscript, WHAT GOOD ARE YOU DOING? Sure, you caught the typos, but that's nothing. Anyone can catch typos. You belittle self-publishers for these things, and you let this go out the door? You're mind-numbing hypocrites. Or worse yet, you're slacking off when you're under pressure, and making your own problem worse.

To all those professional reviewers who praised this book while refusing to review self-published work, let me say this: it's not "literary" if it's poorly-written. Sloppy prose is not a feature, it's a bug. If this is acceptable to you, stop being snobs about the brand on the spine, and start reviewing more broadly, and learn what good writing you're missing. Start with Kristen Tsetsi's Homefront. It's a damn good book, and you're ignoring it, chasing after crap like this.

If I did stars, I would give this one star out of five. One character's (unrelated) story makes it bearable in retrospect, but otherwise, you should avoid it at all costs.

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