Monday, January 18, 2010

'Her Fearful Symmetry' Haunts With Themes of Ghosts and the Demons Within

In the latest novel by Audrey Niffenegger, writer of The Time Traveler's Wife, the author remains a teller of supernatural stories. While her debut novel dealt with time travel, Niffenegger broaches the subject of ghosts in Her Fearful Symmetry.

Edie and Elspeth were twins who grew up in England, as close as twins can be. But something happened to change their relationship, something that severed it for the rest of their lives. Edie now lives in America with her husband Jack and twin daughters of her own, Valentina and Julia. Elspeth has continued living a life in England, one rich with her partner Robert and their friends and neighbors. Only neither of their lives has gone exactly as planned: Edie's twins are oddly attached to one another, to the point that at 20 years of age neither has managed to complete more than a year of college. And Elspeth... Well, Elspeth's life is over. Literally. Elspeth succumbs to cancer within the book's first few pages. And determined to leave something of importance in her wake, she leaves her flat to Edie's daughters.

With the inheritance come several caveats; the twins must live in the flat for one year before selling it, and their parents can't come into the flat at all. Elspeth's flat is in a building next to Highgate Cemetery, one of England's oldest sacred grounds. The cemetery acts almost as a character in the novel, full of life (albeit ghostly life) and the history of the city. When Elspeth is gone, not only are the twins' lives affected for the better; many lives take turns for the worse. Robert, for example, throws himself into his work at the cemetery and abandons "real" life. Neighbor Martin and his wife split up when Martin's OCD becomes more than she can bear. The twins enter this world -- Elspeth's former world -- and help make it a brighter place.

But the twins are dealing with their own demons, similar demons to those which caused a break between their mother and aunt so many years ago. Julia is the pushy one, while Valentina is the frail, asthmatic sister. Throughout the course of the novel, however, Valentina comes to realize that she cannot go on as Julia's twin; she has to become her own person. How she accomplishes that is the crux of the novel, one which forces hard decisions of everyone -- Robert, Elspeth, and even Martin.

Although the story and the characters are interesting -- arresting even -- some parts of the novel just didn't work for me. The ghost portion is obviously part of that. While some other-worldly ideas can be accepted in the case of novels or movies for the sake of the story (think Pan's Labyrinth or Harry Potter), Niffenegger asks a lot of her readers in both The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry. In this latest novel, readers must accept the existence of ghosts and their interacting with the living. However, perhaps the most difficult aspect of the novel is understanding some of the characters' decisions. Martin, while perfectly described in his mental illness, sometimes surpasses even lax rules
of what readers can be expected to accept with his scrubbing and agoraphobia. Likewise, Robert, Valentina, and Elspeth make decisions which stretch the reader's imagination. While it is definite that humans are far from perfect and make selfish decisions, it seems impossible that so many selfish people live together and know one another.

Nevertheless, Niffenegger has created a story which held my attention to the last page. I stayed up late and read longer than planned in order to find out what happens in the end. So perhaps with all its fantastical and far-fetched ideas, Her Fearful Symmetry works as a novel because it does what readers crave; it tells a darn good story as it explores human feelings, desires, and dreams.


  1. Joanna...I agree this book was not perfect but it sure held my interest. I especially loved Martin.

  2. I like Martin, as well. And isn't it wonderful that he is truly one of the "good" characters in the novel :)



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