Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book reviews: Year of the Flood and Her Fearful Symmetry

I'm behind on a few book reviews, so, having gotten today's gratitude post written, I'll talk about a couple of the books I couldn't stop squealing over a few weeks ago.

First, I want to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Did you know a few years ago, Amy and I met Margaret Atwood? She came to Salt Lake City, and we listened to her read out of Oryx and Crake. It was so cool. I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood, but Amy absolutely loves her and breathes her books, so it was something we literally could not miss. We each got our copy of Oryx and Crake signed and we went on our way. Fun, fun.

So anyway, back to talking about the actual books. I liked Oryx and Crake, but I absolutely LOVED Year of the Flood. It takes you back to the same setting that populated O&C. Society is hurtling towards an end that promises to be ugly and completely man-made. In the midst, we meet two characters who seem unlikely to survive the storm. My favorite of the two was Brenda. Brenda was in O&C as Snowman’s high school girlfriend, and so we get to see him and Crake from her perspective (she is a far more sympathetic character than either Snowman or Crake). Part of her childhood was spent with a religious group called God’s Gardeners. They try to live as purely as they can within the decadent society that surrounds them. God’s Gardeners is populated with leaders who are all called Adams and Eves, who teach the children and teenagers living among them survival skills. Brenda likes her life with the Gardeners, but she has to leave it when her mom gets fed up with the man she is living with, and goes back to Brenda’s dad. After a few years, Brenda ends up as a trapeze artist in a sex club.

I did not expect to like Brenda. "Why would I like a prostitute?" was my original thinking. But as I got to know her, I loved her. Despite the life she has to lead, she is still the kind girl she was growing up with the Gardeners. It reminded me that no one choses such a life out of desire, but out of necessity. The social commentary that Atwood uses to describe Brenda’s life was what struck me the most. She lives in a world that is driven by science, greed, and lust. To retain a degree of purity in such a world the way Brenda did makes for awesome writing.

Some of the best parts of the book were the sermons given by the main Adam in the God’s Gardeners. Nearly every day for the Gardeners was a day of celebration of some saint. Adam One would give a discourse/sermon on the day’s saint, and at the end, they would sing a song. The songs were hilarious and clever. I shared the one about embracing our inner australopithecus a few entries ago. She cleverly places commentary and judgment on our own society in the songs, which made me love Margaret Atwood even more.

If you haven’t read it, I highly, highly recommend it. I now need to reread Oryx and Crake just so I can find Brenda again through other character’s eyes.

The other book is Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Now, if you are expecting another experience like The Time Traveler’s Wife, you will be (I almost guarantee it) disappointed. Read this book on its own merits, not the love you may or may not have for TTW. They are vastly different.

That being said, I liked HFS a lot. It tells the story of two sets of twins. The younger set of twins inherits an apartment in London from their aunt (their mother’s twin). In London, they meet the other inhabitants of their apartment, including their dead aunt (I don’t think saying that will spoil a lot. But if it does, I’m sorry!). The interaction between the twins and the aunt (whose name is Elspeth) is interesting, to say the least. Trailing through the story is Highgate Cemetery, an actual cemetery in London that the girl’s apartment is attached to. Throw in an OCD upstairs neighbor, a grieving downstairs neighbor (who was the dead aunt’s lover) and you have quite the cast of characters.

I think this is the thing with Niffenegger’s books: you have to suspend a part of reality (time travel in TTW, ghosts who play with kittens in HFS) to enjoy the book. If you can do that, you can enjoy her novels. When I try too hard to figure out how Henry didn’t know he would end up in the cage during that one scene in TTW, it makes my brain hurt. When I think of the idea that a person could wake up after having recently died, and become aware of herself and her apartment and the knowledge that she is stuck, stuck, stuck in that reality, I get uncomfortable. But, suspending that part of myself, I can appreciate the way Niffenegger sets up the worlds in her books. There are laws, and time and space apply in her worlds. Elspeth cannot leave the bounds of her apartment. She can blow up light bulbs with energy, but she can’t open a book. It works.

I think the strongest character in the book was the OCD neighbor, Martin. The bounds of his life which he has meticulously created are so poignant. He wants so badly to leave his life and join his estranged wife, whom he loves, but he simply can’t. The love that is shown between him and his wife has echoes of Henry and Clare. I was extremely happy for Martin in the end.

I will say this: HFS is a lot cleaner than TTW. I didn’t, don’t, and will never mind the blatant sexuality that is TTW, but it is problematic when recommending it to others. But HFS also lacks some critical element that TTW had. The characters are compelling, but I didn’t want to crawl into their lives the way I did with Henry and Clare. I also realize they are different novels, different stories, and set out to fulfill different intentions. So I’m okay with HFS not being another version of TTW. I kind of have the opinion that many authors have one book that they are destined to write. For Barbara Kingsolver, it was Poisonwood Bible. For Anita Diamont, it was The Red Tent. For Larry McMurtry, it was Lonesome Dove (in my opinion; I hated Terms of Endearment). They told THAT story, the one that kept them up at night for years for the want of telling it. I think that Time Traveler’s Wife was that book for Niffenegger. She definitely hasn’t lost her ability for achingly beautiful prose, or the talent to write about relationships that tear at your heart.


Amy Sorensen said...

I am re-reading Oryx, and I finally bought my copy of Flood, and I am just going to read and enjoy and stop being such a spaz! I'm glad you liked both of them. I agree SO much with your last paragraph, too. It's not just contemporary authors either...I mean, isn't Pride & Prejudice Austen's best novel? And Tess of the D'Ubervilles is Hardy's, and...

I didn't read terms of Endearment but I do have a great affection for Lonesome Dove. I can't remember if I bought it or if I just read Dad's copy though...