I was looking forward to reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, and I was seriously contemplating buying a copy (20% off at National Book Store using the Laking National Card) when my boss lent me her copy to review.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife; I remember seeing it on a display shelf, reading the blurb, buying it straightaway (those were the days when my TBR was at a manageable figure I could count with my fingers!) and peeling off the plastic wrap as soon as I crossed the threshold!
I also have Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters (one of her two illustrated novels) which showcases beautiful and haunting aquatint art, albeit the bizarre story.
Like many others I was waiting for her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, and wondering what was in store this time around…
Modern-day gothic story
In “Her Fearful Symmetry,” 20-year old twins Julia and Valentina Poole are enjoying a life of leisure in America when they receive word that their estranged aunt Elspeth Noblin, their mother’s twin sister, has passed away and bequeathed to them the bulk of her estate.
Effective on their 21st birthday, the twins are the new owners of their aunt’s London flat, which borders the legendary Highgate Cemetery, home to the graves of Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Stella Gibbons, and Karl Marx. Elspeth has only two provisions: that they live in the apartment for at least a year before they sell it, and that their parents not set foot in it.
Eager for independence, the girls move to London to claim their inheritance, managing to work their way into the lives of the other residents in the building: the obsessive-compulsive Martin and his dejected wife Marijke; and the scholarly Robert, their aunt’s lover; as well as — hold your breath — the restless presence of Elspeth’s ghost right in their flat.
As Julia and Valentina get to know more about their mysterious aunt, their own relationship unravels and family secrets are revealed, building up a modern-day gothic story that explores love, life, family, and the special bond between twins.
The story reminds me a bit of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, with the focus on twin-ness and the knot of family secrets that revolve around it.
From benign to sinister
“Her Fearful Symmetry” is a vast departure from Niffenegger’s first novel, with a pervasive bleakness to it that musters a longing for the warmth and sincerity that made The Time Traveler’s Wife a compelling read.
I liked the instant connection Henry and Clare make with the reader in TTW, and how they are very easy to relate to and empathize with and I was hoping for more of the same in Her Fearful Symmetry.
Unfortunately, as protagonists, Julia and Valentina Poole come across as dry and uninspiring, failing to evoke sympathy in the reader, while Elspeth makes a tiresome ghost, bordering on cheesy when she tries out the usual ghostly tricks – flickering lightbulbs, messages in the dust, and Ouija board conversations.
Surprisingly, I find that it is the support cast that is better written – Martin, the charming crossword puzzle maker crippled by his compulsions, is dreadfully interesting, and it was easier for me to empathize with his estranged wife Marijke (who felt trapped by her husband’s fears) than the protagonists. And although Robert tends to go overboard with his grieving, I like him as the cemetery scholar who painstakingly recreates the lives of graveyard’s inhabitants to keep their memories alive.
The Highgate Cemetery (where Niffenegger is a volunteer guide) provides a fascinating and atmospheric backdrop for a story inspired by Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman In White.” The graveyard tours and the history of the cemetery were actually my favorite parts of the book, and I appreciate how Niffenegger took time to make it authentic with heavy research on the cemetery, which in fact led her to become a Highgate volunteer guide herself!
Niffenegger’s evocative prose is up to par in terms of composition, but I found it difficult to digest the direction the story takes.
The first two-thirds of the book is pretty much uneventful, and when the story picks up, it gets rather unwieldy and requires a strong suspension of disbelief, even for a ghost story. The twin subplots are tired, too — a love triangle involving twins; mistaken identity; and an extreme twin-ness that’s hard to believe.
There is, perhaps, one set of twins too many in this convoluted plot, and it goes from benign to sinister in a series of absurd and unsettling twists concentrated towards the end of the book. The ending was both disturbing and disappointing; I don’t remember the last time I encountered anything so ghastly.
And really, who keeps their deepest secret (that they’ve kept for practically half their life and to their death) in a red envelope marked “big, dark, and horrible secret” taped to the back of their diary?!?
Sigh. I appreciate the valiant attempt from Niffenegger, but I fear that she might have been too hasty in writing this after The Time Traveler’s Wife. Her Fearful Symmetry had a lot of potential, especially with a setting so grand, and I’m sorely disappointed at how it turned out.
My copy: borrowed from my boss, and I don’t think I will get one
My rating: 2/5 stars