Her Bitter Disappointment

June 15, 2010 at 7:20 am (Uncategorized)

Willing suspension of disbelief is fundamentally a pretty mad sort of phenomenon, isn’t it, and I find in my own case I apply all sorts of unconscious rules about what will and will not do when it comes to accepting things that cannot be. Or at least, I sometimes experience keen readerly resistance when already impossible things take a certain turn, and I experienced this specific unwillingness toward accepting the unfolding story while reading Her Fearful Symmetry.

But not for the reasons you’d think – and that’s what interests me about suspension of disbelief and my own weird and probably irrational relationship to it.

First things first: SPOILER ALERT. If you’ve not read Her Fearful Symmetry but think you might, PLEASE DO NOT READ ON, as this post will undoubtedly completely RUIN IT FOR YOU.

I was a whole 300 pages in when I flung the book across the bed and called out to Llew that my book had “just become dumb.” It was so irritating – I went back through the previous pages to see if I’d missed something, something that might explain why a patently absurd and dangerous idea was now so easily getting a run amongst the characters. What? I thought. Why? Why? This doesn’t make any sense! But there was nothing, nothing except an excellent reason for shutting down the entire crazy notion, being that the last time it was tried, the household pet ended up dead. I’ll explain: there’s a ghost. Now, I accepted the ghost without question as part of holding up my end of the bargain as reader. So there’s a ghost: gotcha. No problem at all. And the ghost is stuck in her old apartment and can’t get out. Vexing! Good dramatic potential there. I am with you, Niffenegger: go for it. The ghost’s twin nieces are now living in the London apartment thanks to her bequest, and they all discover a way to communicate. So far so good. Then the ghost accidentally hooks the soul of the household cat. This is a great scene, frightening and convincing, and the ghost succeeds in putting the soul back before any serious damage is done. Now, for the first time, we all understand this terrible power at the ghost’s disposal, and we’re duly unsettled by it.

Except for the twin who’s the chief communicator with the ghost – she’s excited by it. She hatches a frankly fucking insane plan to fake her own death as a means of escaping her twin – who, by the way, isn’t some diabolical ogre intent on destroying her twin’s life, she’s actually quite decent, just pushy and stubborn and lazy and lacking any discernible talent for all we’re told they’re malcontent brainiacs. But okay, whatever, because this other thing is never getting off the ground, it’s too stupid and extreme and besides, the next time the ghost hooks the cat’s soul, as we know she must, the cat dies.

I don’t know about you, but I kind of thought that would be it for the, “I know! Why don’t you pluck my soul from my body, I’ll drop dead, then I’ll have a funeral, my body will go to the family mausoleum for a few days – on ice, of course, and pumped full of anti-coagulants because otherwise, you know, I’ll start to rot – then we’ll get your bereaved boyfriend (a.k.a. my current love interest) to liberate my lifeless body from its coffin and cart it back here to the apartment, whereupon you, ghost, can put my soul back, and then I’ll be free to make a new life for myself away from my pretty normal and by now utterly devastated twin, without a useable passport, ID, bank account etc, but who am I to quibble?” plan.


The pressing question, the really, really, really pressing question is why this NUTTER doesn’t simply arrange for the assets of the estate to be split and, you know, MOVE OUT? It’s not a question of the action being unbelievable – my willing suspension of disbelief would have taken care of all that – the problem here is that the action is so unreasonable. We – or at least I – need to see the logic of a character’s actions so that we might empathise with them even when they do something moronic and life threatening; without this bridge, there erupts an impassable abyss. And for me, the chasm grew and grew from this point: first the ghost acquiesces to this cockamamie plan (and we find out later she’s actually the girls’ birth mother, so, you know, I’m struggling with the whole, ‘Sure, I’ll pluck out your soul!’ thing), and then – wait for it – so does the boyfriend. Sure, people, what a good idea! Neat-o! No, really, I can see why you wouldn’t just divide the estate, move flats, change countries… why sign up for a fashion design course without your twin when you can try faking your own death instead? It’s clearly the obvious solution, with, of course, predictable results.

Yes, this is what dissatisfaction feels like. I feel as though the contract has been broken, and my readerly trust – the thing that makes me suspend my disbelief so willingly in the first place – has been abused. This story veered into irrecoverable stupidity – sorry if that sounds harsh, but for me it’s true – and what a shame, too, because there was so much there to play with, it was all going so well, the novel had such an abundance of things going for it (Highgate Cemetary and its history, Martin the endearing and intriguing OCD-suffering upstairs neighbour…), so why, why, why Niffenegger abandoned that idea of internal logic I’ll never know. And by the time this entirely risible if elaborate conceit of melodramatic deceit was over, I’d really stopped caring.

I learned something about my own willing suspension of disbelief reading Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s not unconditional. On the contrary, it evidently has standards that need to be met, and it won’t hesitate to withdraw support – that rickety bridge stretching across the gorge – if conditions become unworkable. Things unravel, you see, once you’ve asked, “But why? Why? WHY?” one too many times. The bridge comes apart, splintering and tumbling into the ravine below. And then there’s no way back.

Good to know. Good to remember.



  1. Pete said,

    I think I’m with you on this one. Haven’t read HFS and didn’t think I was likely to so I carried on reading your review. But I agree that once that rickety bridge between reader and writer gets broken the reading experience is pretty much over. Have just started Niffenegger’s better-known Time Traveller’s Wife so I’m hoping for better things there.

    • doctordi said,

      It’s such a leap of faith, isn’t it, Pete, and this increasingly felt like Niffenegger stepped to one side instead of standing below ready to catch the reader, like one of those corporate trust exercises gone wrong. A real shame. Let me know how you go with TTW.

  2. Grad said,

    Like Pete, I have The Time Traveler’s Wife on my reading pile (lent to me by the young girl across the street who says it’s a “must” read). I also wasn’t planning on reading HFS, but even if I was I couldn’t have stopped reading this post. This “breaking of the contract” between author and reader is what many criticized Agatha Christie for in The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (which, by the way, is actually my very favorite Christie – maybe my favorite mystery story – period.) If an author is going to cajole the reader out on a limb, it’s best not to saw it off unless there’s a net below (or a fluffy bush).

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, I’ve not read the Murder of Roger Ackroyd… I hesitate to say I’m unlikely to, but I would like to know why Christie was accused of breaking the contract. For such an unwritten agreement it’s as set in stone as any other in existence. I also want to know how you find TTW.

  3. charlotteotter said,

    I read it and I agree with you, Suspension of belief so far that it snapped.

    • doctordi said,

      And wasn’t it disappointing, Charlotte??!! I was right there, prepared to go anywhere, and I felt like she just… copped out.

  4. litlove said,

    I haven’t read this, but have read plenty of disgruntled reviews. You win the prize for the funniest one! But doesn’t that experience of a bad book teach you loads? I think it’s as important to read stuff that makes you go ‘NO’ as it is to read books that make you melt inside with longing and aspiration.

    • doctordi said,

      LL, after I wrote this post, I trawled the net for some broadsheet reviews of the novel. I was relieved to find the third one had similar thoughts, but very, very surprised that the first two – I think the Guardian and the New York Times – were simply glowing, and didn’t talk about this failure to adequately lay the foundations for this entirely out of the blue suicide mission… I was as perplexed by the reviews as by the novel itself. Just goes to show.

      But absolutely – that’s what I meant by good to know, good to remember – I think it’s a really, really salient lesson reading books you feel in your heart don’t work.

  5. Lilian Nattel said,

    Di this made me laugh. I know just what you mean and you explained it so well: unreasonable vs unbelievable.

  6. doctordi said,

    I might have laughed myself, Lilian, had I not been so cross about the way it all played out! Yes, I really had to examine why I was so easily able to accept some things but not others, and that distinction is what I came up with. It’s important. Actually, I think it’s probably non-negotiable.

  7. davidrochester said,

    This was hilarious … the best part was that you were quite prepared to buy into the supernatural idea, but not the idea that *anyone* could be *that illogical and stupid.*

    why sign up for a fashion design course without your twin when you can try faking your own death instead?

    Why, indeed? You know, based on your review, I think the problem here is that the story didn’t need any supernatural element, but what it did need was psychological illumination. I can well believe in sibling relationships where it seems easier to fake one’s death than to go on living alongside someone intolerable, but an amazing degree of insight and inner world-illumination is necessary to pull that story off. Ghosts can’t do it.

    • doctordi said,

      David, I think you’re right (does that ever get boring for you…?). Psychological illumination: that’s what was needed. And it was MIA.

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