These discussion questions forHer Fearful Symmetryby Audrey Niffenegger are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
1. Just as she did with time travel in The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger made the bold choice to center the story in Her Fearful Symmetry around a fantastical subject: ghosts. How does Niffenegger strive to make this supernatural occurrence believable in the novel? Do you think she succeeds? Why do you think Niffenegger is attracted to subjects like time travel and ghosts?
2. The book opens with Elspeth's death. Why might this be significant? In Chicago, why is Jack "relieved" when he hears that Elsepth has died? How do Jack's feelings for Elspeth foreshadow events later in the novel?
3. The narrator, in describing the physical appearance of Julia and Valentina, remarks that the twins "might have been cast as Victorian orphans in a made for TV movie." How do the twins appear to the outside world? Why do you think Niffenegger decided to make them beautiful but fragile--"like dandelions gone to seed?"
4. Before she dies, Elspeth tries to explain to Robert the nature of her relationship with Edie. Elspeth says, "All I can say is, you haven't got a twin, so you can't know how it is." How does Niffenegger depict the bonds between the two sets of twins in the novel? Compare and contrast the relationships between Elspeth and Edie and between Julia and Valentina.
5. In what ways does Valentina live up to her nickname, "Mouse," and in what ways do her actions in the novel contradict it?
6. As she observes Elspeth's funeral procession, Marijke muses that the cemetery is like "an old theater." What does she mean? How does Highgate Cemetery come to function like a character in Her Fearful Symmetry?
7. Martin is an unusual person: a translator of obscure languages and crossword puzzle setter who also suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Why is it important that he and Julia should become friends? What does their friendship reveal about each other?
8. "A bad thing about dying," Elspeth writes to the twins, "is that I feel I'm being erased." What does she mean by that? How does Elspeth seek to rectify this feeling of "being erased"? Similarly, after Marijke leaves him, Martin worries that his wife is gradually “bleaching out of his memory.” How is the issue of memory important to the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry?
9. One of the pivotal moments in the plot occurs when Robert takes Valentina on their first date. How does their sudden romantic attachment affect Julia and Valentina's relationship? How does it affect Robert? How did you react when you realized that Robert and Valentina might become lovers, and why?
10. Why does Elspeth choose to leave her apartment to Julia and Valentina? At one point, Robert conjectures that “it’s the extravagance of the thing that appealed to her.” Do you agree? How does your opinion of Elspeth change over the course of the novel?
11. Though ghosts figure prominently in the storyline, the characters in the novel spend relatively little time asking themselves about the spiritual implications of their predicament. Why do you think that is?
12. Niffenegger depicts several long-term romantic relationships in Her Fearful Symmetry: Elspeth and Robert; Martin and Marijke; Edie and Jack; as well as Jessica and James Bates. Which, if any, of these relationships is successful, and why?
13. Many of the characters in the novel demonstrate nostalgia for things in the past: Robert with Highgate Cemetery and its history; Martin with mostly forgotten languages; Elspeth with her book collection; and, even Julia and Valentina, with their appreciation of old clothes and television shows. Why do you think Niffenegger includes so many “nostalgic” elements?
14. Niffenegger plays with the idea of "being lost" in at least two ways in the novel. Julia and Valentina are frequently lost in London. When she loses her way, Valentina begins to panic, but Julia "abandons" herself to "lostness." Meanwhile, Robert and Elspeth experience loss as it relates to death. How do these two types of loss play out in the novel? Are they somehow related?
15. The title Her Fearful Symmetry is derived from a poem written in 1794 by William Blake, “The Tyger.” Look up the poem online, and read it. Why do you think Niffenegger chose this title? How do you think she intends for readers to understand the word “fearful”?
After reading the book, do you think Elspeth had an ulterior motive for leaving her belongings to the twins and making them move to London away from their parents?
Valentina wanted to separate herself from her twin sister, and suggested faking her own death to do it. Do you think - as Elspeth tried to reason - that Valentina was actually suicidal?
Valentina felt the presence of a ghost as she and Julia walked along the canal. Since we know Elspeth couldn't leave the flat, does that imply they were being followed by another entity, and that Valentina could see other spirits than Elspeth?
At one point, Robert warns Valentina to be careful of Elspeth's ghost, as Elspeth can be quite manipulative. Do you think Elspeth was consciously intending to steal Valentina's body, after witnessing what happened with the Little Kitten Of Death?
Robert - a lover to both Elspeth and Valentina throughout the book, leaves a finished manuscript of his book in the house he shares with Elspeth at the end. Do we come to understand that Robert couldn't accept that Elspeth had stolen Valentina's body and had either simply left her or - more radically - chosen to take his own life?
Is the big secret between Edie and Elspeth confusing? If I'm reading it correctly, Elspeth (the one who lived in London) is actually the mother of Julia and Valentina, but chose to let her sister raise them with Jack. If that's the case, is it even more shocking that Elspeth chose to take over Valentina's body?
"A bad thing about dying," Elspeth writes to the twins, "is that I feel I'm being erased." What does she mean by that? How does Elspeth seek to rectify this feeling of "being erased"? Similarly, after Marijke leaves him, Martin worries that his wife is gradually “bleaching out of his memory.” How is the issue of memory important to the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry? (borrowed from here)
As with The Time Traveler's Wife, Niffenegger uses supernatural or science-fiction plot devices to examine human relationships. How successful is this in making the story unique or more compelling?
Q: Tell us a little about Elspeth. You have said that you had to get these twins into a nice flat in London and the only way to do that was to give them an inheritance. So Elspeth had to die. But then you found that you were interested in her. Tell us about your solution.
A: The more I thought about the twins’ aunt Elspeth, the more I wanted to write about her and I got very, very sad that I’d killed her before she entered the story. I decided that she would not go, she would become a ghost.
Q: One of the things that’s striking about the way you tell this story is that though there is a ghost --- we need to accept the existence of the supernatural ---everything else about the world in which these characters find themselves is totally realistic.
A: One of the things about fiction is that you can do anything. And the ghost is just as real as any of the other characters because they are all made up. In the course of writing Her Fearful Symmetry, I spoke to a lot of people who told me about their own experiences with ghosts. It wasn’t people relating something that happened to someone they knew. They said: “This happened to me.” In most of the stories, someone dead gives a warning or advice to the living. My great-aunt, after her husband died, said that she felt him sit down near her feet when she was in bed. Very simple things like that sound wonderful and amazing to me.
Q: You seem to take delight in the architecture and tools of the 19th-century novel. So many of them begin with news that changes the circumstances of the central protagonist or protagonists --- Mrs. Bennett learns of Mr. Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice; Tess learns of her distant relationship to the aristocratic D’Urbervilles. The lives of Julia and Valentina Poole are transformed at the opening of this novel by the news of their inheritance. Can you discuss your own reading and what books might have influenced you as you delved into this story?
A: At the very beginning of this project, I looked through a variety of books to see what overused old plot devices and character types I could steal. From Henry James I got the notion of the young American girls who come over to the old country and run into trouble. And Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White turns on the extraordinary resemblance between two young women who don’t know that they’re related. Every plot move is based on mistaken identity and mistaken parentage and all these other things which have come to seem rather creaky. I thought I’d like to take this big bag of clichés and try it out, and see if I could make it seem compelling and quirky and new. The characters of Julia and Valentina, in particular, are a throwback to a type of girl who hardly exists anymore. They are like 19th-century girls who have wandered into a twentyfirst- century book. They may refer to pop culture and to the Internet, but these twins are very involved with each other and they have created their own little world. To a 21st-century reader, they would seem, I think, to be strangely isolated. Reading these 19th-century novels, I also noticed that quite frequently the women are driving the action. That is true of this book as well. The men spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the women are up to and trying to make sense of it.
Q: Highgate Cemetery itself is a major character in Her Fearful Symmetry. Can you tell us a little about this great 19th-century cemetery? About who else is buried there? And about how you became a tour guide at the cemetery?
A: I first came to Highgate Cemetery in 1996. I was attracted to it because I’m a big fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Rossetti family is buried there. But there’s so much more to it than that. It was founded in 1839 as part of a wave of social reform. The idea was to free all the overcrowded churchyards of the burden of burying everyone in London. Seven cemeteries were founded in a ring on the perimeter of the city. Highgate was, by far, the most romantic and fashionable of them all. It has some very famous occupants, including Karl Marx and his family, the novelist George Eliot, and so forth.
As I was finishing Time Traveler, I had an idea for a story about a man who can’t leave his apartment and a girl who visits him. In my mind, this apartment was in a Chicago neighborhood called Uptown, which is a hardscrabble place. There’s a large cemetery in the middle of Uptown called Graceland, and I imagined that they lived adjacent to that cemetery. But then I thought, “Is that the best cemetery?”
I remembered Highgate, which was simply the coolest cemetery I had ever seen. By choosing Highgate, I immediately propelled the whole scenario into London, and I rapidly realized that writing the book was going to require an immense amount of research. When I contacted Highgate, they were initially very cautious, but they did allow me to come and talk to them. Jean Pateman at Highgate was phenomenally helpful. She and the other people who work at the cemetery are walking history books. Jean and the other Friends of Highgate Cemetery tutored me.
Q: It’s almost impossible to resist talking more about Martin and Marijke because their journeys --- though not the central plotline of the novel --- are so beautifully developed. How did they come into the story?
A: Martin is the agoraphobe who started the story. He and Marijke love each other very much. They are both in their fifties. He composes crossword puzzles. She is a radio announcer for the BBC. Later she moves to Holland because Martin’s OCD has taken over. I know from personal experience people who have OCD, the most lovely, talented people, and it just comes and rules their lives. Marijke realizes that she can’t help Martin, she can’t live this way. The letter that she leaves for him makes it clear to him that she won’t be coming back, but that if he is willing to go to Amsterdam, then they can proceed with their marriage.
Q: There are two sets of twins in this book, and there is no question that one of the formative conflicts in the story comes when these twins --- who have lived together so intimately, shared so much --- begin to want separate lives, to go different ways. What drew you to twins?
A: I suppose one source of unease is this notion that you’re not as unique as you think you are. And identical twins, of course, personify that. We don’t like that. Maybe we’re drawn to the idea and repelled by it at the same time. Of course, I imagine a twin would look at the rest of us somewhat pityingly, because if you’re a twin, you really do have a soul mate. I’ve talked to a lot of twins, and they’ve all mentioned that you feel the need to make yourself into an individual. In the book, there was a certain point in the growing up where the twins would have to decide how much individuality they were going to have as grown-ups. The struggle for these two characters is: Are they going to keep on living in lockstep or are they going to start to diverge?
Q: Let’s talk about process. You’ve said that The Time Traveler’s Wife began with that phrase. You were at your drawing table and it came to you. Once you had the phrase, your imagination took over. So what do you do when you get an idea?
A: The original idea was that there would be a man in this apartment who couldn’t leave, and there would be a girl who comes to visit him. And the girl was Julia and then Julia had a roommate and I thought, “Well, that’s not very interesting.” So I thought, “OK, no, they’re twins.” When you start to work, you’re fumbling around in darkness. Every decision calls for a whole bunch of other decisions. So just by making Julia and Valentina into twins, I immediately had a structural device ---the idea of symmetry. That dictated a lot of other decisions in the book.
Q: Were there any big hurdles in writing this particular book? Were there any mechanical difficulties? How do you think your writing has evolved from The Time Traveler’s Wife to Her Fearful Symmetry?
A: I think that my writing is getting a lot tighter and more controlled. Time Traveler’s Wife is full of exuberant digressions. It’s in some ways a typical first novel where you just pack all sorts of stuff into it and let it rip. Her Fearful Symmetry is pared down because I was writing about a place, London, where I have never lived. So it’s full of the results of a lot of careful observation and eavesdropping and sort of thinking about what belonged in the novel and what didn’t.
When I began to write Her Fearful Symmetry, I decided that I didn’t want to just repeat myself. For me the most complicated thing was something which I hope the reader will never notice, which is the way that point of view moves among all these different characters and how we can be intimately involved in one character’s thoughts, and then in the next sentence we are in somebody else’s mind. I was reading writers who do that brilliantly such as Virginia Woolf and trying to learn how to do it myself.
The Observer - review
The follow-up to The Time-Traveler's Wife takes a long time to come to the boil…
The runaway success of Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel, The Time-Traveler's Wife, is in part a testament to the perennial attraction of "What if?" She plays with the possibility of upending the laws of the natural world, asking the questions that we imagine with a delicious shiver as children: What if we could travel through time? What if people came back from the dead? She then weaves the answers into ordinary life, so that her characters straddle the chasm between everyday concerns and a world that can exist only in imagination.
For the reader, therefore, engaging with her characters is dependent on how far she can persuade you to suspend disbelief in her central conceit. The Time-Traveler's Wife was the old story of star-crossed lovers, except that the couple were separated by the man's tendency to slip through time. Her Fearful Symmetry, the long-awaited follow-up, is in many ways a conventional ghost story, grounded in one of the most elemental human desires: the wish to communicate with those we love after death.
Elspeth Noblin, dead from leukaemia at 44, finds herself confined incorporeally to her flat on the edge of Highgate Cemetery, a flat she has left to her 20-year-old twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, recently arrived from Chicago. The twins are the daughters of Elspeth's twin sister, Edie, from whom she was estranged, and they bring their own ethereal qualities to the odd community that gathers around the cemetery: they dress identically in little-girl dresses and white tights, and are "mirror-twins", identical but reversed. Even Valentina's heart is on the right.
The plot elements could hardly be more promising for a spine-chilling, potentially erotic ghost tale: the overgrown, Gothic cemetery with its eminent graves; the restless ghost; the virginal twins; Elspeth's gaunt, haunted lover, Robert, torn between his devotion to her memory and his guilty attraction to the twins, who seem to reincarnate her. Yet after a few chapters the reader might feel justified in demanding where the fear promised in the title has got to; there is a flat, daylight quality to the book that is partly due to Niffenegger's matter-of-fact prose. Despite its macabre setting, the novel is curiously lacking in atmosphere.
But this story is as much about the living as the dead; as the months pass, the characters go about their everyday lives (or afterlives), making small connections with one another. Robert stalks the twins through London and we hear in detail about their tube routes, their tourist itineraries, their lunch at Pret a Manger. Niffenegger has been assiduous in her London research and is clearly keen that none of it should be wasted; she even worked as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery, as Robert does, and her enthusiasm for it is evident in his version of the tour. She also weaves in a sub-plot involving the twins' upstairs neighbour, Martin, an academic who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder; there is a tenderness in her portrait of the relationship between Martin and his wife Marijke, as they struggle with the all-too-real problem of mental illness, which renders them more vivid than Robert or the twins.
The difficulty with Her Fearful Symmetry is that, despite its intriguing ingredients, it takes too long to marshal them into a compelling storyline. Almost three-quarters of the novel has passed before Valentina decides she wants to free herself of her domineering twin at any price, a decision that ramps up the Gothic melodrama and becomes the catalyst for the book's real twist, bringing the supernatural element to the fore. Immediately the story turns darker, the pace quickens and something genuinely frightening threatens to flood in, but this comes puzzlingly late, leaving this reader, at least, wishing the novel could have been weighted a little more in favour of the sinister.
Whether Her Fearful Symmetry will justify its $5m US advance remains to be seen. It lacks the more obvious commercial appeal of her previous sci-fi romance, but as a study of love, loss and obsession it is a more accomplished and considered work, and is clearly written with great warmth and affection – above all for Highgate Cemetery itself.
The New York Times – review
By SUSANN COKAL
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In the second half of the 19th century, Londoners enjoyed a form of recreation that today might seem grisly: a Sunday stroll through one of the vast graveyards beyond the city center. The new burial grounds were established to move corpses out of the metropolitan churchyards, where they had contaminated the groundwater; these cemeteries were at once gardens, social centers and museums of statuary, a sort of theme park bristling with monuments to lost loves and individual hubris. They ultimately bore the same message one might hear in church: No matter how we try, our human endeavors end in death. It was not uncommon to find a family picnicking among the headstones.
Highgate Cemetery, which opened in 1839, is perhaps the most famous of these parklands and a popular tourist attraction now. It is home to the remains of Karl Marx, Radclyffe Hall, Michael Faraday and the Pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, among many other luminaries. It represents lives, secrets and stories jumbled together, the path through them determined by proximity and the tastes of the individual tour guide. In that way, it is like a novel.
Audrey Niffenegger makes the most of Highgate in a bewitching new novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry,” which proves that death (as one currently popular saying goes) is only the beginning. That’s true for Elspeth Noblin, who dies of cancer at age 44 after declaring: “A bad thing about dying is that I’ve started to feel as though I’m being erased. Another bad thing is that I won’t get to find out what happens next.”
A lot happens next, and a very unerased Elspeth participates in much of it, for there is a ghostly and passionate life after death: conflicts, like spirits, live on. Buried in Highgate, just over the fence from her former apartment, Elspeth’s corporeal self has left behind an estranged twin sister, a younger lover whom she promises to haunt and a valuable estate that now belongs to her nieces, also twins, living in America. She stipulated that they can collect only if they move into her flat for a year and keep their parents out. Her reasons will be explained if Elspeth’s lover, Robert — a neighbor and Ph.D. student writing an obsessive history of Highgate — can bear to read the diaries she’s left him.
Obsession is the order of the day. Niffenegger digs deep into various forms of love, including the oppressive closeness between both pairs of twins and the beyond-the-grave ardor of Elspeth and Robert. There’s also the outright obsessive-compulsive disorder that confines another likable neighbor, Martin, to his apartment. Martin’s otherwise loving wife leaves him because of his physical rituals and emotional tics, the hoards of boxed-up belongings and the bleach-chapped hands that are figures for any kind of drive that takes over body and soul.
Robert’s obsession with Highgate means he has “lost all perspective” and let his thesis grow to more than 1,400 pages. In her own career, Niffenegger has written roughly as many pages that prove she is a daring, inventive and immensely appealing writer. Her runaway first book, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” is the story of two Chronos-crossed lovers whose meetings and partings are beyond their control; her illustrated novels, “The Three Incestuous Sisters” and “The Adventuress,” mix equal parts fairy tale and gothic romance. Each of these is a high-concept tour de force, with the flashiness that the term implies; each one is also an incantation to primal desires and horrors. In the present case, is anything more alluring than twins or more cathected than a ghost?
Death comes with its own set of rules. Elspeth’s spirit is unable to leave her old apartment, so she hides in a desk drawer and gains strength by teaching herself how to haunt. Eventually she will write in dust and manipulate a Ouija board, assuming the appearance of “the body she had died in, thin and scarred by needle holes.” She is not one to let the physical defeat her, even when her preternaturally gorgeous American nieces (who resemble a young Elspeth and her own twin) move in and slowly befriend a bewildered and grieving Robert.
The description of those nieces, Julia and Valentina, might fit a pair of funerary statues: short, thin and pale, with white-blond hair and a tendency to hold each other’s hands. They mirror each other even inside, where Valentina’s heart sits on the right rather than the left and symmetry causes her a number of life-threatening health problems. Valentina is known as the nicer sister; perhaps inevitably, Robert finds himself falling for her, as she does for him. He is then in the awkward position of loving two women — one a living virgin, the other a phantom with an agenda. When Robert says of Elspeth’s ghost, “her ideas have other ideas hiding inside them,” it is an ominous observation, especially as Valentina enlists her help to break away from Julia.
Niffenegger’s characters are selfish, messy, vulnerable and sometimes crazed, all under the attractive veneer of artistic and contemplative impulses. They don’t live up to what others might consider their potential. Valentina wants to be a fashion designer but allows Julia’s lack of ambition and general bossiness to keep her in a kind of perpetual adolescence. Martin is brilliant at languages, but his O.C.D.-imposed confinement means he translates digitally submitted texts and constructs elaborate crossword puzzles destined to die along with the daily paper.
Even the most self-absorbed characters win a deep compassion; it’s possible to root for every one, even as you want to shake some sense into them all. When he thinks of his wife, Martin misses her “roundness, he loved the warmth and heft and curve of her”; he even misses her snoring. Prickly Julia has her moments of kindness as she tries to help Martin. In part because of this emotional generosity, the novel is intimately and subtly humorous, as lovers banter and the narrative voice winks at human frailty. Put on a plummy British accent to pronounce “symmetry” and “cemetery” and discover a pun in the title.
The ending depends on some unsettling authorial choices. With two sets of twins and the supernatural in play, there are sure to be buried secrets and cases of mistaken identity. Although there are plenty of hints along the way, it may be helpful to draw a chart to track the inevitable reversals. Valentina’s plan for escape is fantastical, its execution shocking — all to the author’s credit. “Symmetry” rises above concept and into the heady air of artistry, where just about anything is believable.
When Robert began his thesis, he envisioned Highgate as “a prism through which he could view Victorian society at its most sensationally, splendidly, irrationally excessive . . . a theater of mourning, a stage set of eternal repose.” In this novel, it is much more than that, a place where the symmetry of a prism yields to the natural and emotional forces that distort the careful plans of cemetery designers and, by extension, anyone who dares to feel. The growth of tree roots raises a gravestone off the ground; a jealous prank changes life (and death) for two generations of twins. Repose is overrated anyway.
Lovers of Niffenegger’s past work should rejoice. This outing may not be as blindly romantic as “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” but it is mature, complex and convincing — a dreamy yet visceral tale of loves both familial and erotic, a search for Self in the midst of obsession with an Other. “Her Fearful Symmetry” is as atmospheric and beguiling as a walk through Highgate itself.
Daily Telegraph: review
Lorna Bradbury is beguiled by a ghost story set around Highgate Cemetery, Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
It is a rare thing for a first novel to create a stir on the scale of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. It made the bestseller charts when it was published in the United States in 2003. And then, aided by its selection for Richard & Judy and by the trashy film last summer, managed to replicate the same feat over here. It was a smart book: a high-end romance rejuvenated by a clever time-travel device, a winning combination of fantasy and ordinary human drama.
Her Fearful Symmetry plays a similar game: the time-travel element is replaced here by a ghost story, but what is really satisfying about this novel, like Niffenegger’s first, is its depiction of relationships: the processes of grief, the transforming power of love, the problem of carving out a distinct place for oneself in the world – especially, in this case, if you are a twin.
This novel’s plot hinges on two sets of identical twins: Elspeth, who lives in London, and Edie, who lives in small-town America, estranged since their early twenties for reasons that are only fully revealed late in the book; and Julia and Valentina, Edie’s teenage daughters whose suffocatingly close relationship has left Valentina, the weaker of the two, with nowhere to go.
The novel opens with Elspeth’s death from cancer. Though she has never met her nieces (or so we are at first led to believe), she decides to leave her flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery to them on two conditions: that they move to England and live in it for a year before they think of selling, and that their parents never set foot inside it. It doesn’t take long before the twins agree – and so is set in motion a chain of events that eventually uncovers the secret at the heart of Elspeth and Edie’s relationship.
What is striking about this novel is the peculiar magic it works, so that you get caught up in its often improbable plot. These twins are not just identical but mirror-image, so that every cell in their bodies is reversed. Elspeth can pluck the souls of the living out of their bodies – she does this with Valentina’s beloved cat, with disastrous consequences, in a dreadful foreshadowing of what is to come.
It is crammed almost to breaking point with motifs and symbols from 19th-century fiction (Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry James) and has a profusion of plot-lines that don’t always hold together. The strand involving Elspeth’s upstairs neighbour, Martin, for example, who suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder, though wonderful in itself, feels like it belongs in a different book. Edie’s husband’s decision to hire a detective to get to the bottom of her fortnightly visits to the local PO box makes no sense when we learn later how much he really knew of her early life. Valentina’s plot to escape from her twin supposes that she is feeling suicidal – an impulse that is absent from Niffenegger’s characterisation up to this point.
But somehow all of these problems feel irrelevant as you are reading. Niffenegger’s story is written with a lightness of touch and with a great eye for the oddities of human behaviour.
If you come to the book looking to be freaked out, you will be disappointed, for this is a strangely unspooky ghost story. But it is a fascinating portrayal of the dark impulses of identical twins, and of the potential links between the living and the dead.
And Niffenegger’s depiction of Highgate and of English idiom are, almost without exception, spot on.
Washington Post – review
Will Love Reawaken the Recently Dead? The author of "The Time Traveler's Wife" returns with a Gothic romance.
More than a month before Halloween, the most sophisticated horror stories are already crawling out of the ground. You think you're safe over there in the primly maintained Literary Fiction section of the cemetery, peering across the rusty gate at Stephen King's "Under the Dome" (Nov. 10), Anne Rice's "Angel Time" (Oct. 27) and even a sequel to "Dracula" written by -- please, no! -- Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew (Oct. 13). But meanwhile your genteel old friends have already been hideously transformed: Sarah Waters leads this bone-chilling pack with a Jamesean ghost story called "The Little Stranger," which has a good shot at winning the Booker Prize next week. Dan Chaon's "Await Your Reply" pays homage to everybody from Peter Straub to H.P. Lovecraft, and Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" has been re-stitched by such non-horror writers as Peter Ackroyd and Laurie Sheck. In short, there's nowhere to hide this year from frighteningly smart, scary novels.
The latest to join this infernal group comes from Audrey Niffenegger, author of the phenomenally popular "Time Traveler's Wife," which means her new one has a good chance of haunting the bestseller list, too. As naturally as she used elements of science fiction in the past, she borrows the tropes of Victorian Gothic here for a story that seems, at first, more interested in whimsy than terror. "Her Fearful Symmetry" doesn't reveal its spectral elements for more than 60 pages, and when the first ghost does make an appearance, "gaining opacity gradually," the scene is strangely poignant and witty, like a visitation from Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit." But Niffenegger manages to breathe life into these dead cliches, noting at one point that the soul leaves the body "slippery like an avocado stone popping out."
Millions of readers who enjoyed "The Time Traveler's Wife," or endured the recent movie version, will find a similar theme in "Her Fearful Symmetry": romance that transgresses all natural barriers. But this new novel also recalls the odd illustrated book that Niffenegger published in 2006, "The Three Incestuous Sisters." A visual artist and printmaker, she spent 14 years working on the intaglio pictures for that tale of sibling rivalry, and "Her Fearful Symmetry" suggests that she's still preoccupied by this unsettling subject.
As the story opens, two college dropouts, identical twins Julia and Valentina Poole, have inherited an apartment in London and several million pounds from an aunt they never met, their mother's identical twin, Elspeth. With nothing else to do and no particular interests, the twins accept this generous bequest, leave their parents behind in Chicago and move into their late aunt's flat. Below them lives Elspeth's bereaved lover, a much younger man named Robert, who's writing a history of the cemetery next door. And above them lives Martin, an agoraphobic man with obsessive-compulsive disorder who writes esoteric crossword puzzles for several British newspapers.
"Her Fearful Symmetry" is rather thinly plotted and at least 100 dilatory pages too long. One chapter begins with the damning confession, "Days went by and nothing much happened." But Niffenegger creates such marvelous scenes of muted sadness and smothered affection that you don't entirely mind that the parts are better than the whole. Her portrayal of the lonely crossword writer, for instance, is funny and sad, even if never particularly integral to the story line. Surrounded by barrels of bleach, winding through his labyrinth of boxes while counting backward from 1,000 in Roman numerals, poor Martin is trapped in a loop of anxieties. He spends his days pining for a woman who loves him but can no longer endure his compulsive routines.
Meanwhile, Robert, the young historian who lives beneath the twins, fleshes out the story's Gothic trappings in all their luxurious agony. The subject of his ever-growing dissertation is London's Highgate Cemetery, where he volunteers as a guide, offering historical commentary to tourists and nursing his raw grief for Elspeth. Niffenegger is clearly in love with this beautiful, funereal place, too; she worked as a guide there herself, and at the end of the novel she includes a plea for donations that's hard to resist. For Robert, Highgate is a prism "through which he could view Victorian society at its most sensationally, splendidly, irrationally excessive . . . a theatre of mourning, a stage set of eternal repose." In other words, it's the perfect place to tempt a rational young man into macabre speculation about contacting his dead lover. But what starts like Patrick Swayze's erotic pottery scene in "Ghost" eventually slips off center to something closer to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
Niffenegger slowly draws out the relationship between the indolent young twins in a strange dance that's alternately charming and sinister. Julia and Valentina, it turns out, aren't exactly identical -- they're "mirror-image twins"; all Valentina's internal organs are on the other side of her body. "They were essentially one creature," Niffenegger writes, "whole but containing contradictions." The fey one, Valentina, wants to study fashion design, while her more aggressive sister just wants to keep her safe. Their sisterly devotion sounds sweet until it seems suffocating, with a touch of incestuous frisson that would leave Edgar Allan Poe queasy.
Tensions between Valentina and her controlling twin eventually push the plot to a bizarre crisis involving body-snatching and soul-swapping. It's a disorienting shift into the dark logic of fairy tales. But keep the children away and dust off the Ouija board; you're about to make contact with something deliciously creepy.