Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Twins. Cemeteries. Ghosts. Lovely and engaging writing. If any of these things sound interesting, you should pick up Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife.  It's being published on Tuesday, September 29th.

Elspeth Noblin, aged 44, dies of cancer in London, leaving her downstairs neighbor and lover, Robert, bereft. Elspeth had an identical twin sister, Edie, whom she had not seen since shortly after Edie ran off to America with Elspeth's fiance, Jack Poole.

Edie and Jack themselves have a set of twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. Elspeth leaves her apartment to them in her will, with the stipulations that the girls live there for a year and that Jack and Edie never set foot in it. The twins, as they are often called — they are identical mirror twins and exceptionally close — accept. They are smart but without direction, have already dropped out of college twice, so it seems like a fine idea to leave their native Chicago to move to London for a year.

When they arrive, they do not immediately meet their neighbors in the other two apartments. Martin, who lives upstairs, is a brilliant man with a grown son and a wife who is exasperated with his unchecked obsessive-compulsive disorder. Having added agoraphobia to his list, he naturally does not venture out to greet the girls. Robert lives on the first floor and is both a shy person and daunted at finally meeting Elspeth's nieces. It is weeks before he speaks to them, and then only when they attend his tour at Highgate, a Victorian cemetery next door to their apartment building, where he is a guide.

Secrets abound among this group. Elspeth never told Robert about her parting from Edie. Edie doesn't confide in Jack. The twins know something happened but can't get anyone to tell them about it.

There is also something strange about Elspeth's flat. There are weird temperature variations, and objects appear to move around by themselves when no one is watching. Could it be Elspeth is not entirely out of the picture?

The supernatural aside, love and identity are a main themes of this story. Julia is the dominant twin, but Valentina resents Julia's bossing. How can Valentina become her own self when Julia won't let her go? Julia, for her part, feels she must protect and care for Valentina, who suffers from asthma and is sickly.

At the same time, each girl feels incomplete without the other, and love is also like that for Robert and Martin, who in their own ways are forced to explore what it is like to be alone.

To what extent should one go to have a separate identity? To what lengths should one go to keep love? I'm not a twin, so I can't say whether the actions either sets of twins take are plausible (which on their surface they don't appear to be). I can say that the non-twin love stories — Robert's and Martin's — speak of love in an idealistic way that is rare in real life.

I don't know if this point should be a cause for criticism, however. Niffenegger's previous and highly successful novel The Time Traveler's Wife was at its heart a love story. It's no surprise that love beyond the normal bounds of existence are at play in Symmetry as well.

Small misgivings aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry. It is atmospheric — set in and around a London cemetery, how could it not be? Pictures of Highgate grace some pages of the book. They are monochrome and a bit washed out, that is, ghostly. Niffenegger's descriptions of Highgate reveal her knowledge of and affection for the place (she is a volunteer guide herself). London, when the twins venture out into it, is conjured as a bustling and fascinating place. But the apartments of Elspeth and Martin, where much of the action takes place, are almost characters themselves they are so richly imagined.

Although ghosts are reputed to be cold and a ghost story might also be so,  Symmetry has great warmth. Audrey Niffenegger draws characters that are sympathetic even when they are being monstrous. Martin is a good example. He is beset by terrible OCD, which makes him nearly impossible to live with. Yet he is terribly charming and it's easy to root for him while being glad his apartment is not real.

What makes this book tick, however, is suspense. Niffenegger skillfully plots her elements, revealing just the right amount to each character. While the reader is in the know about some things, and much of the suspense is created by what the characters will discover and at what point, I found the major plot turns at the end both surprising and satisfying.

So, if you'd like to read an original and imaginative ghost story this Halloween season, you need look no further than Her Fearful Symmetry.


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