Two sets of twins, a disillusioned husband, a grieving boyfriend, one ghost. The lives of Her Fearful Symmetry’s characters are as tangled as they sound, in a drama that will play out amongst the tombstones of Highgate Cemetery. A sticker on the front reminds potential readers that Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yet let that be the first and last time Niffenegger’s debut novel is mentioned. Her Fearful Symmetry is described as a ‘delicious and deadly ghost story,’ and should be judged in and of itself.
We open with the death of Elspeth Noblin. She and her (substantially younger) boyfriend, Robert, had, until her death, lived in two separate flats next to Highgate cemetery. Shortly before her death, Elspeth wrote to her twin sister Edie, who lives in America, and informed her she is leaving her flat and all her possessions to Edie’s twenty-year-old twin daughters, Julia and Valentina Poole. The catch is that both Edie and her husband Jack are forbidden from entering the flat, and thus the dark, tangled pasts of the characters begin to emerge.
Julia and Valentina move to London and soon discover the quirks and oddities of the flat in Highgate — one of which is the ghost of Elspeth, who is currently residing in her old desk drawer. Elspeth, ghost in training, is trying to gather her strength every day in order to be able to communicate with the twins. She is initially feeble and without substance, and all she can do is watch the twin nieces she hasn’t seen for twenty years.
Above the twins’ flat live Martin and Marijke, a Dutch couple who were friends of Elspeth and Robert. Martin has extreme symptoms of OCD, so much so that he cannot physically leave his flat and must live with his windows papered over; his only connection with the outside world comes through the internet. Marijke, disillusioned with this life and Martin’s refusal to seek treatment, leaves him and moves to Amsterdam.
Disjointed much? From the first fragments of character portraits and plots, it’s already obvious that Niffenegger wasn’t quite sure in which direction she wanted to take the story in. The story is written in fragmented, bite-sized chapters which don’t begin to form into an obvious plot until halfway through the novel.
Once you have soldiered through the beginning, the story does begin to take shape, and it become obvious where Niffenegger’s talents lie: her portrayals of human emotions, from love to grief, are pretty spectacular. We see the middle-aged Robert and the young Valentina (somewhat disturbingly described as child-like throughout the book) struggle to come to terms with their feelings towards one another, and slowly realise they are falling in love. We see Martin’s obsessive love and loss for the wife that walked out on him, yet he still refuses to take the medication that will cure his illness. We see Elspeth’s frustration at death, at her insubstantial new form, and her mingled resentment and guilt that her niece and ex-lover are becoming romantically involved.
The exploration of the twins’ relationship is also interesting. Valentina struggles with the power dynamics of her relationship with Julia: she is fed-up of constantly being the passive twin, of having her sister dominate her life. The model of their mother’s failed relationship with her own twin should’ve provided a warning for the younger girls, but Valentina is soon filled with enough resentment towards Julia that she wants to leave her sister forever. So far, so bearable. However, things soon take a nosedive for the ridiculous. And by ridiculous, I do mean that Valentina brokers a deal with Elspeth the ghost to remove her soul from her body and then reinstate it, after Robert has thieved her corpse from the family mausoleum.
There was a considerable part of this book that I really enjoyed. Niffenegger undeniably has a skill for portraying emotion and the complexity of human relationships without being sentimental or melodramatic. However it felt like she’d tried to stitch one too many ideas together in this book and they simply did not gel. With an ending that was not only unbelievable in terms of its plot, but that also had me questioning character’s motives and actions, it was on the whole a disappointing end to the spark that got lost somewhere in the middle.
Here’s the thing: it’s okay to have unlikeable characters, as long as they’re interesting – but one thing you must never do is make them irritating. As it happens, “irritating” is how I would describe most of the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry, which had the unfortunate side effect of making me completely indifferent to their fates.
I quite enjoyed Audrey Niffenegger‘s most famous work, The Time Traveller’s Wife, so picking up her second novel was a no-brainer. The synopsis seemed pretty interesting: ghosts, twins, graveyard tours — all that is totally up my alley, and the whole thing gets off to a good start:
The premise of Her Fearful Symmetry is that mirror twins Julia and Valentina Poole unexpectedly inherit the London apartment of their aunt Elspeth Noblin — the twin sister of their mother Edie. The strange thing is, their mother and aunt were estranged for the duration of the twins’ lives, so why is she leaving her home and possessions to the nieces she never met?
Clearly there’s a family secret at work here, but the twins seize the opportunity to travel to London and see if they enjoy the lifestyle there. Naturally there’s a host of new acquaintances to meet, namely their aunt’s lover Robert (who works in the neighbouring Highgate Cemetery) and Martin, a man with severe OCD who lives in the apartment above them (and because of his condition, can’t leave it). We also learn something of the twins’ relationship, which is unhealthily co-dependent and involves Valentina feeling stifled by Julia’s control.
Yet there’s another presence in the building: Elspeth’s ghost is still haunting the apartment, and once the twins become aware of her presence, Valentina comes up with an idea to escape her domineering twin.
If you want to read the following spoilers, highlight these hidden paragraphs: This is where it all gets rather frustrating. Since Elspeth has learned how to remove the spirit of a living creature from its mortal body (having done so with a stray kitten), Valentina wants her to do the same to her so that she can fake her own death and be brought back to life later. Roping Robert into this ridiculous idea, the three come up with a painfully convoluted plot involving Valentina committing assisted suicide, an elaborate deception in which her entire family thinks she’s dead, and Robert stealing her body from the crypt in which she’s buried.
Yeah, all that instead of Valentina simply asserting herself, taking her share of the inheritance, and moving away from her sister. [end spoiler]
It’s difficult to know which one of these characters I’d most like to slap: Robert for being such a pushover, Elspeth for encouraging her teenage niece to kill herself, or Valentina for coming up with such a ludicrous plan in the first place. Or maybe Martin, who refuses to get medical help for his OCD, but is desperate to win back the wife who left him after his behaviour becomes unbearable (she’s my favourite character, being smart enough to move AWAY from all the idiots that surround her).
Other things got on my nerves, like how Julia and Valentina are given absolutely no goals or ambitions whatsoever. Sure, there are probably lots of people in the world who want to forego a career and lounge about the house all day, but they don’t make for interesting book characters. When a character’s singular goal is to remain in a state of utter ennui, it’s hard to care.
Then there was the “family secret” that lies at the heart of Elspeth and Edie’s estrangement, which ultimately has no impact on the story, and turns Elspeth from an irresponsible person to a downright loathsome one. After a certain point all I wanted was for everyone to get some intense psychotherapy.
All that said, Niffeneggar writes beautifully, and Highgate Cemetery has since been put on my bucket list, so vividly does she describe its walkways and gravestones. But Her Fearful Symmetry is a strange novel that ultimately left me thinking: “so what?” From a twist involving Elspeth’s true identity, to what Robert does on the final page of the final chapter, it all came across as the futile nonsense of really annoying people.