An Evening with Audrey

I have returned from Bronte Country and will be very shortly posting about my trip BUT a very exciting thing happened to me tonight that I must share first!

Last week Claire told me that Audrey Niffenegger was doing a reading and Q&A session in London tonight and I planned to go, but then promptly forgot all about it in my excitement of going away to the land of Jane Eyre. Today Claire emailed to check if I was coming and so I rang Foyles to check there were still tickets and to cut a long story short I met Claire, and Jackie from Farm Lane Books, and we went to see Audrey at the Bloomsbury Theatre.

We were in the front row and it was AMAZING. I have never been to an event like this before or had my book signed or anything so it was an entirely new experience for me. I was completely enthralled. Audrey was charming and intelligent and very funny, with a dry sense of humour that came in useful when it came to some of the questions she got asked!

It was so fascinating to hear about her writing process, how the books germinated, where she got her inspiration from, and what changed and became more or less important as the story progressed and began to take on a life of its own. Her Fearful Symmetry began as the story of a man who couldn’t leave his apartment and had a girl come and visit him, and his apartment was in a part of Chicago called ‘Uptown’ and was next to a cemetery called Graceland. However, Audrey said that she realised this cemetery was going to become a big part of the story, and as this was the case, she wanted to write about a cemetery she absolutely loved, and so Highgate became the cemetery instead, and the story switched from Chicago to London. Audrey began researching in 2003, before The Time Traveler’s Wife was even published, and she was even a guide at Highgate for a while – I wish I’d visited when she had been doing the tours! It was just incredible the amount of research Audrey had to do – she said that the complexities of writing in British English were so much more than she had imagined, and setting the story in London rather than her native city was part of the reason why it took her SEVEN years to write it.

On top of all this Audrey said that when she started writing Julia and Valentina were just roomates, but then they morphed into twins, and then there wasn’t even going to be a ghost, but she realised that it wasn’t fair to kill Elspeth off in the first line so she brought her in, and inadvertently made her the focus of the story rather than the twins…it was so interesting to discover how much the plotline and the characters had changed from her original idea. Her Fearful Symmetry could have been a very different novel indeed.

Other great insights; the title comes from a line in William Blake’s The Tyger, and Audrey hasn’t seen the film of The Time Traveler’s Wife and doesn’t have plans to. Take from that what you will!

I just had the most wonderful evening and learning about the process of writing and just how long it can take as ideas go off on tangents and what started as being on the periphery becomes central was so exciting and eye opening for me, especially as I am starting a Creative Writing evening class next week! I have kept quiet about this as I am really nervous and worried I will be exposed as a terrible writer and my dreams of making a living from the fantasy worlds inside my head will be dashed but I suppose it will have to come out at some point so there it is – I am beginning the process of getting myself established as a Proper Writer. I hope. I will keep you updated in due course.

After Audrey had signed our books (or piece of paper in my case, as I had forgotten all about it and didn’t have my book on me!), Claire, Jackie and I went for a coffee to discuss books and blogging and Audrey and it was absolutely lovely; I was so pleased to finally see some book bloggers face to face!

So a thoroughly enjoyable evening…I am still in awe that I met Audrey Niffenegger!!!

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Things that make me sad include: wars, crying children, charity TV adverts, homeless people, biting into an unexpectedly mushy apple, hearing the words ‘your train has been cancelled’, making a cup of tea and then realising there IS NO MILK and being cold, hungry and tired all at the same time. But WORSE than all of these sad sad things is when I finish a book I have adored and desperately want to clamber back inside the story and make it last longer, make it tell me more about the characters, make it answer all those burning questions it has annoyingly left unresolved…but this can never happen and so I am left a little bereft, with the world somebody else was so kind as to create for me still swirling around in my head, unsure of what to do with itself.

This is how I feel right now. Her Fearful Symmetry is over for me. I have read all the words on the pages, some of them twice. There is nothing new to discover, no new pages to turn. I can no longer feel smug that I am wielding a copy of a book that no one else is allowed to read yet. All of my other books are depressingly available.

But! I have experienced the joy that is the reading experience of Her Fearful Symmetry and this joy will be longlasting. I want you all to also experience this joy and so I demand that you preorder this book so that on the 1st of October when it is on general release you can delve inside the strange and mesmerising world of Vautravers and its inhabitants.

So, the bit you have been waiting for…the review! I am being very careful so as not to spoil anything so if it sounds a bit confusing I do apologise, I am simply trying to protect your enjoyment when you read it for yourselves.

First things first: this is not The Time Traveler’s Wife Part Two. So don’t go in comparing it to that. It doesn’t really have the same emotional intensity, but it is just as gripping and tense and wonderful. It does share the same implausable plot, however, and as with the whole time travelling situation in her previous book, you have to accept that it makes completely no sense and could never happen in real life, shrug, and move on regardless. If you are the type who likes to pick holes in the logic of such situations as time travelling and ghosts and souls and so on and so forth then you probably won’t be able to handle the suspension of disbelief involved in reading the book. Consider yourself duly warned.

And so to the plot. The book is essentially about two sets of twins. The former set are Edie and Elspeth, English twins who grow up together and are completely inseparable, until Jack, a handsome American walks into their lives and gets engaged to Elspeth, then leaves her for Edie, who elopes with Jack to America. They have twin daughters in due course, Julia and Valentina, and after Edie goes back to England to visit Elspeth with the twins when they are babies, Edie and Elspeth never speak again. There is the belief by all who know them that they hate each other because of the Jack situation but we find out fairly quickly that this is not the case, as they secretly write to each other, though Edie always burns the letters as soon as she has read them. The book opens with Elspeth dying of cancer and Edie receiving her last letter, telling her that by the time she gets it, she will be dead.

So it all starts rather mysteriously. What is the real relationship between Edie and Elspeth? Why do they correspond in secret? Have they really not spoken for over twenty years? The mystery, and belief that Elspeth and Edie hated each other deepens when Elspeth’s will reveals that she has left her beautiful flat that overlooks London’s Highgate Cemetery (a very expensive area for those who don’t know London) and her millions of pounds to Julia and Valentina, whom she hasn’t seen since they are babies, on the condition that they move to England when they are 21 and live in her flat for a year before selling it. Oh, and Edie and Jack are never allowed to set foot in it.

In the meantime, before the twins arrive in London, we are introduced to the fellow inhabitants of the large house that is divided into flats, Vautravers, which contains Elspeth’s flat. Above Elspeth’s flat live Martin and Mariijke, a middle aged married couple. Martin has OCD and can’t leave the flat; Mariijke loves him desperately but can’t cope with having to live with his illness and all the restrictions it puts on her life. Early on she moves back to Amsterdam, her hometown, and says she won’t come back. If Martin wants to be with her, he has to come and get her. As Martin can’t even step outside of his front door, this leaves him living a lonely and bereft existence, trapped in his flat and paralysed by the many rituals he is convinced he must perform.

Below Elspeth is Robert, her thirty something lover of several years, who is devastated by Elspeth’s death to the point where he is finding it difficult to function. He is writing a thesis on Highgate Cemetery, which is beautifully and meticulously depicted throughout, and works there as a guide. The Cemetery backs on to the house and it is a large part of his life, especially after Elspeth is buried in there, in the family tomb. He desperately misses Elspeth and spends a lot of his time in her flat still, talking to her, unaware that she is actually there all along.

And yes, that is the supernatural element of the book. Elspeth’s body is dead but her soul isn’t; it haunts the flat, but it takes a while for her to be strong enough to make her presence known. By the time the twins move in, a year after her death, she can make things move and also make people cold, but she is still not visible. She can think exactly like she used to, and so, though she dies at the beginning of the book, we get to know her as a real character too.

The twins arrive and they are young, and naive, and completely inseparable. They remind Robert painfully of Elspeth. Robert looks out for them, as he also does for Martin, and as Valentina, known by her twin as ‘Mouse’, the meeker of the two girls, becomes increasingly aware of Elspeth’s presence in the flat, he becomes increasingly involved in their lives. Robert and Valentina begin to fall in love, and Valentina grows to resent Julia’s possessiveness and inability to think of them as separate people. Julia won’t let Valentina pursue her own interests, and with Robert and Valentina’s relationship as a catalyst, their codependency begins to be threatened for the first time.

Elspeth is also threatened by Valentina and Robert’s relationship, and by this time she has managed to move objects, and so she is able to talk to them all. Robert loves to speak to her and so does Valentina, but Julia doesn’t show a huge amount of interest as she can’t see Elspeth in the way Valentina can. As Valentina spends more time with Elspeth and Robert, Julia feels more and more left out, and so begins to spend time with Martin upstairs, who she tries to help with his OCD.

Things come to a head when Elspeth realises the astonishing powers over the living she has, and Valentina comes to the conclusion that she can no longer go on living with Julia, as she will never be free to live the life she wants. Robert gets trapped in the middle, and from then on the shocks and twists just keep on coming, right until the breathtaking end.

This is just a brief plot summary and misses out a lot of the periphery action, essential yet minor characters, and general excitement, suspense, emotional engagement and excellent characterisation that we saw and loved in The Time Traveler’s Wife. It is complicated and dense and shocking in a The Sixth Sense the first time you watched it kind of way and I was literally gasping in surprise and disbelief on the train home tonight, with my hand pressed to my chest, as I read the last chapters which KEPT THROWING SHOCKING TWISTS AT ME! I have found this, as I did The Time Traveler’s Wife, literally unputdownable. It is a ghost story and it is supernatural, but it is also very human, very moving, and very real in the way it describes relationships and emotions. It is a novel of love, loss, desire, grief, friendship, devotion, loneliness and ambition, of dreams and longings and hope alongside confusion and despair. I adored it in every way that is possible and it has left me a bit floored and very upset that I have no more of her novels to read until the next one comes out.

I also have to say I was very impressed with Audrey’s research on London; she has done an excellent job of making the twins’ London realistic, and her love of Highgate Cemetery is clear. If you can, I do recommend visiting the cemetery while you read the book, as it is such an important character in the novel and there is nothing like looking at the beautiful, elaborate gravestones existing amongst the half fallen down Egyptian Avenue and overgrown greenery to understand the atmosphere of this book. I visited last year and the photos of the cemetery I have included were taken when I went; it is stunning and so worth visiting.

Buy this book, read it, fall in love with it. You will not be disappointed, I promise.

Why my life just got more exciting!

I have a life just like everyone else’s. On an average weekday I get up, I shower, I get dressed, I drink tea, I eat toast, I brush my teeth, I leave the house, I get on a train, I read, I get off that train and get a tube, I stare out of the tube window, I get off the tube, I walk to work, I switch my computer on, I drink more tea, I do some work, I think about stuff I’d rather be doing, eat some lunch, do some more work and some more thinking about stuff I’d rather be doing, switch my computer off, walk to the tube station, get on a tube, get off the tube and on a train, read, get off the train, walk home, cook some dinner, talk to my flatmates, get out my laptop, do some blogging, watch some TV while sewing my endless patchwork quilt, get changed into my pyjamas, collapse into bed, read, then go to sleep.

So far, so familiar.

But…on Saturday morning my life just got more exciting. The heaviest footed postman you will ever meet pounded his way up the communal stairs and dumped a heavy sounding parcel outside my front door. I sleepily stumbled out to find THIS waiting for me. Ignore the freaky cover and look at the title! Yes my friends, I have a review copy of Her Fearful Symmetry, thanks to the lovely people at Jonathan Cape! And it’s good. So good. I feel smug and privileged and better than everyone else because I am walking around with a book that is not even out yet in my bag. I am reading words other people can’t read yet. And it has taken my life to a whole new level of exciting. I could be a hotshot book reviewer. I’m not, but I could be. Because I have a review copy!

I am not going to sleep until I finish this book. Expect a review very shortly. I love this book so much I am annoyed that I have to be at work because it’s taking up precious time in which I could be FINDING OUT DARK SECRETS! In the meantime I am going to savour every second of my new wonderful existence and flaunt my not available anywhere else copy of this amazing book everywhere I go! Get your preorders in on amazon everyone! You won’t regret it, trust me!

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Ican’tspellhernameegger

I’ve been holding out on reading this for literally years. First my work friend told me to read it, then my sister did, then posters on the tube told me how wonderful and five stars brilliant it was, then Richard and Judy shoved it in everyone’s face with their ‘book club’ that isn’t really a club, actually, and then every charity shop I went in had a bazillion copies and whispered ‘buy me’ in my ear as I picked up every book around those Richard and Judy stickered little bundles of mass marketed literature…for years I refused to jump on the bandwagon, and last week, last week I finally resisted.

I got my copy from a kind local lady through freecycle, as I refused to pay for the privilege and instead got lost in deepest darkest South East London as I couldn’t be bothered to take a map, which served me right. Many three point turns later I returned to my flat with The Time Traveler’s Wife, and three days later I reemerged into the world, teary and stunned and confused and in love with this strange, nonsensical but somehow still completely believable novel, and very annoyed at myself for delaying this reading pleasure for so long. Over those three days I took this book with me everywhere and couldn’t stop reading; on the train, on the tube, on my lunchbreak, whilst cooking, whilst in a coffee shop with friends (rude, I know, but seriously, you’ll get it when you start reading), whilst ‘babysitting’ my nephews, while walking down the street, while driving (at traffic lights, of course) and while in bed…at 3am, 4am…it took over my life. I haven’t read a book that did that to me since Rebecca. Rebecca was so engrossing it made me fall down the stairs. It broke my heart, but at the same time, filled me with hope. It is a remarkable piece of writing that is inventive and moving and downright irresistible. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my preassessment. Read it!

The film is coming out soon. Of course it won’t be as good as the book, as these things never are (though Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma does a very good job), but I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the book of my imagination gets portrayed on screen. Below are the stars – The Notebook‘s Rachel McAdams and Hulk‘s Eric Bana. I can’t stand Eric Bana which is disappointing but Rachel McAdams gets my seal of approval. From the looks of the trailer there is going to be a lot of lip action as illustrated here so I just hope it’s not too much on the steamy side of things!

Even more excitedly, she whose name I cannot spell has written another novel due out this year, and Highgate Cemetery has a big role in it. I love love love Highgate Cemetery and have tons of creepy postcards of sepia tinted graves on my wall…the Victorians knew how to do death. I have high hopes and have preordered it already…the cover design leaves much to be desired but I know better than to judge by the cover in this case…I am a changed woman.