I just walked to the library and dropped of my latest two reads – Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I think it’s a reasonable view to say that I could not have had more disparate feelings about these books. I loved the Kingsolver and loathed the Niffenegger.
So let’s start with the one I didn’t like. I really wanted to like this book. I really did. It involves several things I really enjoy – England, ghosts, and ensemble “casts.” The basic premise is that a woman dies and leaves her house to her twin nieces, the daughters of her own twin sister. The story continues as nieces move to England and into her flat, which overlooks Highgate Cemetery. Her lover lives downstairs, and her neighbor with extreme OCD lives upstairs. Meanwhile, she haunts the flat.
The characters are all interesting, and the first part of the novel is engaging as people work out their relationships to one another and as we see the characters developing. But about two-thirds of the way through the book, there’s this rending plot turn that, honestly, really mortified me, not because it was so outrageous (it wasn’t) but because it seemed like such a cop out. (Forgive me, but I’m trying really hard not to spoil anything for anyone here.) I felt like Niffenegger just got tired or bored or something and quit trying to craft intricate characters in complex relationships. As one friend said, she’s never had a book make her so angry. . . it really was disappointing.
But then, I read Lacuna and my faith in the novel was restored. Kingsolver’s newest work is, in some ways, a work of historical fiction. The main character, Harrison, spends several years in Mexico as a teenager, where he ends up – by twist of fate – working for Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. He develops a friendship with Kahlo and becomes the secretary for Trotsky, when the exiled leader comes to live in Mexico. After Trotsky’s murder, Harrison moves to the U.S. where he becomes a writer who is eventually investigated by HUAC. Normally, I don’t like historical fiction, but this story – maybe because I love Rivera and Kahlo as artists and people – really captured my attention.
But it’s not just the setting and context that captured me; it’s also that Kingsolver has written complex characters that are not simply good or bad but who are all – for the most part – deeply likable and lovable. As the book continued, I really began to feel like I was living in the novel, particularly when Violet Brown, Harrison’s secretary, is introduced later in the book. I just love her honesty and charm and the cracks in her decorum and strength. Great characterization there.
So that’s it – I recommend the Kingsolver but not the Niffenegger. What did you think of one or both of these books? I’d love to hear some other opinions.