Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I bought "Her Fearful Symmetry" solely because it was written by Audrey Niffenegger, author of "The Time Travelers' Wife", which I loved.

"Her Fearful Symmetry" tells the story of two sets of twins. The younger set, Americans Julia and Valentina, are left a flat in Vautravers Mews in London by their late Aunt Elspeth. The stipulations are that they cannot live in the flat until they turn 21, they must stay there for a year before they can sell it, and they must never let their father and their mother (Elspeth's twin Edie) visit the flat.

Valentina is the more fearful twin (Julia calls her "Mouse"), but eventually she acquiesces in accepting the legacy and they move to London after their 21st birthday. What the twins do not know - but learn quite early on - is that their late Aunt Elspeth haunts the flat. (That was no spoiler - Elspeth's ghost is revealed to the reader even before the twins arrive.)

Other characters include Robert, who was Elspeth's younger lover and is mourning her to distraction. Instead of living with Elspeth in her second-floor flat, Robert had kept his own flat on the first floor. After avoiding the twins at first, he later befriends them and forms an attachment to Valentina. A side story involves the third-floor residents of Vautravers, the obsessive-compulsive Martin and his wife Marijka.

I've often said a city can be just as much a character of a book as a human. In this case, it's not a city but a cemetery. London's famous Highgate Cemetery, burial place of such famous people as Christina Rossetti, Karl Marx and George Eliot, abuts right on the property of their apartment building.

This may sound weird, but the cemetery, where Robert volunteers and where Elspeth's remains are encrypted, is portrayed as a delightful place to be - beautiful, peaceful, calm.

I mentioned that the presence and identity of Elspeth's ghost is no secret, but there is a secret regarding the reason why Elspeth and Edie were estranged and Edie moved to and stayed put in America, the twins never to see each other again. When the secret is eventually revealed, I felt quite a letdown.

There are episodes of twin switching among Elspeth and Edie which left me totally confused and I still do not know which twin was which at certain key points in the story.

For these two reasons, I didn't enjoy the book as much as I did "The Time Traveler's Wife" (although it too can become confusing, especially when the time traveler meets himself in the past).

You will enjoy the portrayal of the younger twins and their forays into the neighborhoods of London. At the beginning the twins dress alike and do everything together in very eerie fashion. But this intense attachment begins to weaken as Valentina tries to find a way to be her own person and separate from Julia. How she attempts it - and how it goes awry - is where the book definitely veers off into magical realism.

I do have a problem with magical realism in books. Or I should say certain types of magical realism. Note that I have no problem accepting time travel and ghosts, but some plot twists really do take one's willing suspension of disbelief to the limits.

I believe the title of the books comes from the William Blake's famous poem: "Tiger, burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" One reason for the choice of title might be that Julie and Valentina are mirror twins, in which some of their internal organs are reversed, although they are so symmetrical on the outside as to appear identical. However, I think the tiger could also refer to Elspeth, who might not be as benign a character as she seems.

Ms. Niffeneger is a guide at Highgate Cemetery, which is probably why the cemetery is portrayed as such a welcoming place and its caretakers as such appealing people. What is shown as Robert's research on the history of Highgate is no doubt her own.

1 comment:

Julie said...

This book is definitely on my TBR list, also because I absolutely LOVED The Time Traveler's Wife. It's actually my favorite book of all time. While this one does sound interesting, I'm afraid my expectations are too high. I'm still going to read it and see though. Thanks for the review!