Review Part Two
Endings are so hard, aren’t they? At Laurie’s monthly book group, concerns about conclusions run high. When I listen to people describe a book, satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the ending always figures into the discussion, which generally falls into three categories.
The first category involves quilting metaphors. I hear, “the threads were tied up too neatly” or “not tied up neatly enough” or “story threads were left hanging.” In the second category, alimentary analogies prevail, as in the ending is too sweet, too bitter, too saccharine. A variation on the above, “It left a bad taste in my mouth.” The third group, boxing terms—“knocked me flat,” or “not enough punch,” or “packed a wallop.”
My problem with Niffenegger’s conclusion derives from character motivation. After such a meticulous job of developing character, the author must respect who that person is. It’s a little like gestation. Maybe you wanted to birth a doctor, but a welder emerged. It happens.
I remember watching an interview with Sheri Reynolds, the author of The Rapture of Canaan. Inconsolable over the suicide of one of her characters, Reynolds called her mother. (Trust me, it’s a writer thing.) Once her mother waded through enough of the tearful conversation to discover the deceased teen was fictional, she gave her daughter some simple advice: Re-write it. But Reynolds couldn’t. The character operated according to the dictates of his persona. For him, there would be no resurrection.
Without telling you where I feel Her Fearful Symmetry went astray, I will divulge that a trio of characters hatched a plot, bringing the book to a tidy close. This intricate machination makes perfect sense for two of the three characters. I just don’t buy the third character’s buy-in. Due to Niffenegger’s careful and beautiful rendering, I know him that well. The ending would still be plausible if more attention had been paid to the third character, if he had been forced into the deal against his will.
This disregard for the sanctity of one character so unnerved me, I put the book down. When I took it up again, I hurried through the last forty pages, telling myself I would return one day. But knowing how “way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”*
For all that, the prose of this novel is breathtakingly beautiful, and those who people the pages never fail to fascinate. The story is compelling; the setting, haunting; the writing, lyrical.
It’s 90% fabulous.
*Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.”