Audrey Niffenegger was catapulted into best seller lists across the globe when her first novel The Time Traveller’s Wife was published. People flocked to book stores to see what the craze was about and were met with a heart-warming (and heart-breaking) romance with a slight hint of sci-fi at its heart. Readers were transfixed by the relationship held between Time Traveller’s Wife Claire and her time travelling husband Henry and eagerly awaited Niffenegger’s next book. Enter Her Fearful Symmetry. Published in 2009, the book tells the tale of two twins who move to London after their Aunt dies.
Her Fearful Symmetry has been met with mixed reception. Though the author remains the book retains little of the charm that wove itself through her debut work. The first third of the book offers an enthralling insight into the power of loss and the grieving process after someone dies. Robert, a wealthy cemetery guide, is left alone when long term love Elspeth dies of Leukaemia. Harboring some mysterious secrets Elspeth leaves her apartment, which, conveniently enough, sits above Robert’s, to her twin nieces who live in America with their mother who happens to be Elspeth’s own twin. The relationship held between the twins is captivating and alien and weaves itself intricately with the loss suffered by Robert.
The novel starts to lose some of its integrity when Elspeth returns as a ghost trapped in the apartment the girls move into. Seemingly stranded, she mopes from day to day and suffers pangs of existentialism. That is until she discovers she has the power to communicate with the living. Soon she is speaking freely with the twins and Robert thanks to a handy Oija board and a pen. This second act, whilst offering hope to those who have lost loved ones, takes the story on a strange tangent and makes the more human aspects of the tale bit parts to the ghostly. Valentina and Julia’s relationship becomes strangely strained and suddenly Valentina wants out of being a twin. She starts courting Robert (an oddly discomforting coupling) and Elspeth begins to act like a spoilt child.
The third act is where the book completely loses grip on reality and is where the novel loses most of its readers. One day, when playing with a small kitten, Elspeth discovers she can detach a soul from its living body. This power attracts Valentina’s curiosity and soon a plan is hatched that sets off alarm bells from a mile off for readers. The characters begin to act uncharacteristically and the appearance of an insane greed jars with the intricate beginning painted by Niffenegger. The book ends on a whimper, with an odd ghostly outcome being juxtaposed by a depressing end for Robert, a character who has yo-yod throughout the book; sometimes evoking pity (namely when he sat wanking over Elspeth’s old possessions), sometimes making cringey decisions (dating his ex’s twenty one year old niece for starters).
For all of its flaws, Her Fearful Symmetry does manage to describe Highgate Cemetery masterfully. The Egyptian Avenue jumps off the page and, even if you’ve never visited, it will feel like Niffenegger is taking you on a private tour. The stand out character of the book is one of its bit parts. Martin, the secluded man who lives above the twins, suffers from OCD. Stranded in his apartment, his problems are left to fester when his wife leaves him, unable to deal with his problem any more. His heartache is palpable and his situation endearing – it’s just a shame he isn’t given more prominence in an otherwise curiously tangled story.
The story points toward the importance of a secret Elspeth and her twin Eddie share throughout but when the secret is finally revealed it is both anti-climatic and predictable. Whereas The Time Traveller’s Wife was soon tipped for Hollywood (the adaptation being released in 2009), it’s difficult to see how Her Fearful Symmetry would translate to the big screen. Although Niffenegger’s language is at times captivating, she struggles to recapture the brilliance she enjoyed in The Time Traveller’s Wife.
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