Friday, March 4, 2011
Saturday Review of Books: Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry
Having enjoyed Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, I was happy to dive into her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.
The story opens in London with 44-year-old Elspeth Noblin dying of leukemia, leaving her 36-year-old lover, Robert, bereft.
Elspeth has left her flat and all her money to her 20-year-old twin nieces, who live in Chicago with their father and mother Edie, who happens to be Elspeth's twin. However, Elspeth and Edie have been estranged for years, for reasons not yet revealed.
The condition is that the twins, Julia and Valentina, have to live in the flat for at least a year before deciding either to sell it or stay.
A ghost story
What follows is a compelling and unusual ghost story. This is a facet of the book that I found both intriguing and bothersome.
Intriguing because, let's face it, a good ghost story is intriguing. Bothersome because of the way Niffenegger presents the afterlife.
As a Christian, I embrace the idea of a heaven where we are solid beings engaged in an ineffably joyful reality--not ethereal wraiths flitting from cloud to cloud strumming harps, and definitely not, as one character in the book puts it, "...lounging about the house for all eternity with nothing to do."
I won't give too much away on this point, but it's a major part of the story. However, this is fiction, and it's not trying to be real, so it wasn't bothersome enough to keep me from enjoying the book.
One of the most fascinating things about the book, to the point that it's almost a character in its own right, is Highgate Cemetery. Highgate is an actual Victorian cemetery in London where many famous people are buried.
Elspeth's lover, Robert, is independently wealthy, but spends his life pretty much obsessed with Highgate. The cemetery borders the mews where he and Elspeth lived (in separate apartments), and where the twins now live in Elspeth's flat.
Robert is a tour guide for the cemetery and is writing a voluminous thesis about it.
As part of her research for the book, Audrey Niffenegger herself worked as a tour guide for the cemetery. (It's been pointed out the the word in the title--symmetry--sounds just like cemetery if said with a British accent.)
One problem I had with the book was that I never fully liked the twins or the ghost--who, I'm sure you've guessed by now, is also a major character. I'm not sure why, but I couldn't bring myself to care very strongly about what happened to the twins.
The only character I really cared a great deal about was Robert. His sorrow, his shyness and finally his strength made him appealing.
The other flat-owners in the mews, Martin and Marijke, made for an interesting subplot. Martin is fighting paralyzing obsessive compulsive disorder to the point that it drives Marijke away, despite the fact that she never stopped loving him. Julia befriends Martin and finds a way to help him with his OCD.
In fact, one reviewer correctly pointed out that obsession is the running theme of the book. The twins are obsessed with each other; Robert is obsessed with the cemetery; the ghost is obsessed with wanting to be alive again.
I ended up guessing a major plot twist early on in the book. And along with my dislike of how the afterlife is presented, I had a hard time swallowing the event that drives everything to a climax. I just kept thinking, "No, no one would really want to do that."
But it's thanks to Audrey Niffenegger's writing talent that these criticisms become unimportant. Overall, I truly enjoyed the book, and I'll be thinking about it for quite some time.
I'm participating in Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books. Click on the icon for info!