Gorging on Fiction

Do you love reading? I sure do, and I hope it will never become one of those lost arts, even if eventually paper becomes obsolete and books turn into interactive playthings. I do love holding an actual book and turning the pages back and forth, but I imagine that young children will grow up with a similar love for e-readers.

I have always been a bookworm. I learned to read in kindergarten, using the Dick and Jane series. That very first day, I found myself entranced by this giant book full of letters. “See,” it said on the first page. Then “See Dick,” and so on. I ate up this new magic world. I read and read and read. You couldn’t get me to come to the dinner table. You couldn’t get me to go to sleep at night. I would pretend to fall asleep and then sneak into the bathroom and lock the door.

Once I became a grownup, I realized that this behavior wouldn’t do. I had to curtail my reading habits, or I would never graduate from college, let alone hold down a job. I reined myself in. I stopped reading light fiction, because I would never get any sleep. I just keep telling myself “only a few more pages,” until it is either morning or the novel slows down or I finish it.

Every once in a while, though, I indulge. For some reason, maybe it is the gloomy weather, I started and finished two novels this past week that I couldn’t put down. The better of the two is Amor Towles‘s Rules of Civility. Each year, the library here in Deschutes County picks a community read and schedules events related to the book. Some years, they choose more than one book. This year, they chose Rules of Civility. The schedule hasn’t been announced yet, but Amor Tores is coming in early May. Since the novel takes place primarily in the late 1930s, there will certainly be events related to that era.

The second novel is Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger, who is famous for The Time Traveler’s Wife. Her Fearful Symmetry contains another crazy idea, although not quite as crazy as the idea that a gene could code for enforced, sudden, and violent time travel. Instead, she postulates a ghost who is stuck in her former home and learns to contact the living and have relationships with them. There also is a very sweet, intelligent man with a severe case of OCD (no half issues for Niffenger!) and two sets of ‘identical’ twins.

Rules of Civility looks at relationships to money, career, and love, and, in particular, it asks questions about integrity with regard to those issues. It is written in the first person by a woman who falls in love with a rich man. Because he ends up in a relationship with her best friend, he loses that friendship and she gets into relationships with men she does not love. The book ends with an interesting twist, which has everything to do with keeping integrity both with money and our hearts. I loved the first person approach, as if we are reading a diary and being let into the heroine’s deepest thoughts. Despite the first person format, the feel is a little distant, as if the narrator is not quite engaged in her own life.

Niffenegger’s focus, despite her use of a ghost, is solidly on love and the ties that bind us, and the things people will do for love or to rid themselves of unwanted ties. This is nothing scary about this ghost. I adored the idea of the ghost spying and then trying to be entertained and loved, since I also have a ghost in my novel who is trying to connect with the woman he loves. Her Fearful Symmetry is a very close, personal, book, which rapidly switches POV from one character to the next, even in the same scenes, going into first person and back into third at a dizzying rate. It isn’t confusing, but I did sometimes feel jerked back and forth. Also, the swtcheroo of babies and husbands between the two older twins is a little too slick and difficult to follow. I definitely had moments of: “huh?” who is who? How did they get away with the switch and what does that have to do with the younger set of twins and their father? Otherwise, the drama between the younger twins, who inherit their aunt’s flat, and their downstairs neighbor, plus the man upstairs, kept me engaged.

Unfortunately, I guessed the book’s end long before I got there. I kept hoping that it would end differently than I predicted, but it didn’t.  I do think that Niffenegger could have done more with her ghost, like she did with time travel. Still, it proved a light, fun read.

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  1. #1 by Kathy on April 2, 2012 - 9:44 pm

    And to think it all started with Dick and Jane. Those books may be the most important ones we’ve ever read.

  2. #2 by Eden on March 31, 2012 - 9:17 pm

    It might be worth reading Her Fearful Symmetry for seeing how another author deals with twins. In my own writing I’m working with a family that has identical twins every generation (mostly… one case of superfundecation as well, but the children are both from parents who were identical twins as well). It sets up an interesting value system, I think, but since the only real life “identical” twins I know of actually aren’t (the differences took some time to show). So now … a new book for my list.

    Rules of Civility on the other hand simply looks divine. I love the time period chosen. It’s a bit sad that you mention the POV character as coming off as not connected with her own life. Even if I can believe such a thing could (and often does) happen, in my fiction, I want to get right into the character’s heads. I’m voyeuristic that way. 😉

    Thanks for posting these, Ann.

    • #3 by annstanleywriting on March 31, 2012 - 9:29 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Eden. If you do read Fearful Symmetry, I would be curious how real the twins’ relationships seem, since you have experience with actual and not imagined twins.
      I liked Rules of Civility, but it definitely isn’t the deepest book I’ve ever read. Two years ago our community read was The Help and the contrast between the two choices bothered me. The author definitely got into the protagonist’s head, it’s just that I never felt that her pain came across.
      Remember, I couldn’t put either of these books down…

      • #4 by Eden on March 31, 2012 - 10:11 pm

        Sometimes a light read is exactly what the doctor ordered… Since the majority of my “to read pile” are science books and other references, it sounds perfect.

        And I certainly will let you know if do end up reading Her Fearful Symmetry. I’ve known personally seven sets of twins, three of which were presumed to be identical (one set almost held the label until they reached their teen years) and one that was actually identical. But most interesting are two girls in my son’s class… They’re just starting to show they are fraternal, but even before, the way they act toward each other and the rest of the world–oh, my!

        I will remember that. Books that refuse to let go of your hands are wonderful, but they should come with warning labels. 😀

  3. #5 by KM Huber on March 31, 2012 - 2:30 pm

    Once again, Ann, strong reviews. Rules of Civility is on my reading list and while I like the idea of the Time-Traveler’s Wife, I don’t think she had full control of that novel but like her writing. As you know, my novel also has a ghost so I may Her Fearful Symmetry although from what both of you say, I sense the same problem with the novel. Thanks, Ann!

    Karen

  4. #7 by annstanleywriting on March 30, 2012 - 9:39 pm

    Follow the link to Goodreads and read the review of Rules of Civility by Charlie Quimby. It’s really spot on from my perspective. He caught what I meant by a little cold and a light read.

  5. #8 by Literary Tiger on March 30, 2012 - 9:17 pm

    I’ve never read Rules of Civility, but I did read Her Fearful Symmetry. I liked it, but I felt unfulfilled at the end — like things weren’t resolved.

    How did you find the ending? You are much sharper than I. I didn’t see it coming. 🙂

    What are your thoughts about what Robert does in the end when he finishes his dissertation and is just gone? And did you like Elspeth? I’m sorry to say that I didn’t. 🙂

    • #9 by annstanleywriting on March 30, 2012 - 9:29 pm

      I knew as soon as Valentina asked Elsbeth to take her soul out of her body what would happen (not all of the details, of course). I didn’t see the ghost in the mouth bit at the end, which seemed too corny. I figured that Robert turned his thesis in and went looking for Valentina. No, I did not like Elsbeth, although there were moments when I almost did. I don’t think that we were supposed to like her.

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