Her Fearful Symmetry is Audrey Niffenger’s sophomore novel, following her popular take on the science fiction time travel trope, The Time Traveler’s Wife. To my mind, the two novels could not be more different–and unfortunately, Her Fearful Symmetry suffers for it. While both nicely and neatly integrate the supernatural, there is something decidedly unnatural about the choices her characters make.
Niffenegger’s attempt at a gothic novel concerns two sets of twins: Edie and Elsbeth, who have not spoken or seen one another in over a decade, and Edie’s children, Julia and Valentina. After Elsbeth’s death (not a spoiler, as it happens within the first few pages!), Edie and the twins discover that she has left her London flat to Julia and Valentina, with a few stipulations–the first being that they have to live there for a year before selling it, and the second that Edie and her husband Jack can never set foot inside. With that, Her Fearful Symmetry is off and running. We follow Julia and Valentina as they attempt to navigate a new country and culture, and not least of all their own identities, as twins and as separate individuals. Oh, and did I mention that Elsbeth’s flat is haunted, by Elsbeth herself? The reader is treated to Elsbeth’s slow realization of her death and her increasing powers as a spirit.
The writing itself is lovely and haunting. Niffengger has a flowing and poignant (yet dark) style, and it lends itself well to the gray and isolated life the girls lead in London. Sometimes she captures a feeling or a moment so well that I paused in my reading to allow it to fully sink it. She fully plays up the atmospheric elements of a haunted flat in London, next to Highgate Cemetary, heavy with history and things left unsaid. Certain scenes, like Elsbeth’s death and her partner Robert’s grief, are emotional without being treacly or overwrought, and are a testament to Niffengger’s strength as a writer.
Unfortunately, the characters are all unremittingly selfish and unlikable -except, perhaps, for Julia (the twin, in fact, who is originally painted as bossy and unreasonable) and Martin, the twins’ upstairs neighbor who suffers from OCD. Even characters who start out as likable, like Robert and Valentina, quickly become illogical, thoughtless, and–worst of all–stupid. The original plot point (the stipulations about the flat in the will) is somewhat silly, as is one of the two big story twists–characters act entirely nonsensically and most of the large conflicts could be solved by characters simply talking to one another. So many of the characters’ actions are simply unbelievable and the leaps of faith required to buy into them were just too large for me to make. While it may make for fast and breathless reading, it also didn’t link me too emotionally to them, Valentina, Elspeth, and Edie especially.
Really, the book was most successful when read as an ode to Highgate Cemetery. The stories of the cemetery’s inhabitants that Robert shares, through his dissertation research and his tours, are more realistic and gripping than the book’s actual story. The cemetery’s grounds are lovingly detailed, intermixed with its tumultuous social history. (It will definitely not surprise you to learn that Niffenegger herself is a guide at Highgate.) Honestly, it made me want to pick up a nonfiction book about Highgate!
Ultimately, I would only recommend this for die-hard (pun intended!) Niggenegger fans, who can’t get enough of her beautiful prose. For everyone else, I would say to start and end with The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Bookwanderer Rating: Two and a half stars
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Other Reviews: New York Times Book Review, Dear Author, Stainless Steel Droppings, Book Chick City