A Gothic Ghost Story
Audrey Niffenegger is not in a very enviable position. After all, how does one top a book as powerful and emotionally engaging as her debut novel from six years ago, The Time Traveler’s Wife, a book that Niffenegger’s subsequent offerings will probably always be compared to? Forget about the mediocre movie adaptation of said book that came out this year; if one could take a time machine and travel back to 2003 and review the book for PopMatters then, it would clearly rate a ten out of ten.
Few books have made this reviewer laugh and cry in equal measure. The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of those rare books that I’ve read twice, even going so far as to buy the book again after one of my ex-girlfriend’s friends borrowed the book and never bothered to return it.
Understandably, the follow-up to that book, Her Fearful Symmetry comes with a boatload of hype—not just because of the immediate success of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Her Fearful Symmetry was the subject of a book publishing house bidding war earlier this year, which saw the rights to the book land with Scribner, netting the author a cool five million dollar advance in the process, even despite these recessionary times with cutbacks looming large almost everywhere. That figure puts Ms. Niffenegger in the company of such celebrities as John Grisham (well, at his peak), Stephen King, Tom Clancy and the dude who wrote those Robert Langdon books.
So the big, looming question has to be: was the money worth it? And, subsequently, is the book as good as The Time Traveler’s Wife? Well, the answers to those questions are both a resounding yes…and no. It’s a book that is bound to polarize readers, even though it does have a great deal going for it.
Let’s start out with the positives of what makes this book engaging. For one, it sees the author striving to stretch her boundaries a little, and taking herself out of her own comfort zone. The book is jam-packed with subplots and characters galore, even though it clocks in just over 400 pages—about 100 less than what Niffenegger was working with in The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was a much more linear (despite all the time travel) and cohesive book.
Secondly, the novel is largely set in London, England, specifically in the environs surrounding Highgate Cemetery, which is the final resting place for such luminaries as Karl Marx and George Eliot. Niffenegger makes Highgate almost a secondary character in the book to great effect, making its luscious environment believable and real. (Even though Niffenegger is a resident of Chicago, she does do tours of Highgate throughout the year in real life, which probably lends itself to how she makes the physicality of the cemetery and its rich cultural history spring vibrantly to life.)
Which leads us to the many twists and turns of the plot. The book is basically the narrative of two sets of nearly identical twins. The first pair, Elspeth Noblin and Edie Poole, is British and have a history that spans decades—even though the duo never talk to each other after Edie elopes with Elspeth’s fiancé to America. The second pair is Valentina and Julia Poole, the twenty-something virginal American offspring of Edie, who are symmetrical twins of each other. (They have moles on the opposite sides of their faces, and Valentina has her heart on her right side as opposed to the left.) They are also both inseparable and are constantly hanging off each other. Think of the twins in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and you’d be on the right track.
When Elspeth dies of cancer, she leaves her flat to both Valentina and Julia. Naturally, the twins accept the invitation to come to London, and once they arrive they run into the strange and peculiar people who inhabit Elspeth’s apartment building, which borders on Highgate Cemetery. There’s Robert, who was Elspeth’s younger lover, and Martin, a crossword puzzle maker who suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and never leaves his flat as a result. And then there’s the matter of Elspeth, who turns up as a ghostly inhabitant of the flat where Valentina and Julia reside.
Niffenegger has something to say in Her Fearful Symmetry about the nature of distance in relationships. The twins are separated by distance from their doting parents. Martin is separated from his estranged wife, Marijke. Robert is kept separate from his love, Elspeth, through death. And, of course, Elspeth is distant from her past life by the coldness of the afterlife.
Despite its ambition, Her Fearful Symmetry does have its share of flaws. For one, an apt description of the plot progression has been reviewed elsewhere as being a “slow burn”—unlike the fast-paced nature of The Time Traveler’s Wife. One has to almost read Her Fearful Symmetry in morsel-sized chunks, perhaps 20 pages at a time, owing to the fact that, for large parts of the book, not much really happens as the twins tramp about London.
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for the characters, as well, when some of them are so resoundingly creepy. Robert, in particular, masturbates in Elspeth’s apartment after she has departed this world, and, later, stalks the twins around London in utter fascination unbeknownst to them. What makes this particularly disturbing is the fact Niffenegger hammers home again and again that the twins look much younger than their 20 years—going so far to suggest at one point that they have the physical appearance of 12-year-old girls. To those who had problems with Henry’s trips back to Clare as a schoolgirl in The Time Traveler’s Wife and the pedophiliac overtones that such trips may have aroused in some readers, well, they’ll have much to saw about in Her Fearful Symmetry.
And then there’s the issue of how Niffenegger deals with Martin’s illness. At one point in the book, Julia fakes OCD in order to obtain medication that she plans on slipping unknowingly to him. I don’t know how Niffenegger feels about mental illness, but as someone who suffers from a form of mild schizophrenia, I was a little offended by the suggestion that mental disorders can be faked by seemingly ordinary people. But this plot point is actually more of an illustration of the corner that Niffenegger had painted herself into. She had to come up with a way for Martin to potentially leave his flat, as his role as a metaphor for the twins’ unwillingness to detach themselves from one another requires him to do just that in order for any character development to take place.
Then there’s the matter of the ending, which features not just one, but two plot twists. One of them is fantastic—in both the literal and complimentary sense—but the other is just plain unbelievable. Both involve identity switcheroos, and while the gifted Niffenegger gets one of them right, it’s embarrassing to think that the other feels so inconsequential to the goings-on of the novel.
In short, Her Fearful Symmetry is a bit of a letdown from the high-flying nature of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Was it worth the five million? Well, probably not. It is by no means an average book—it is well crafted and one can see that a great deal of care was taken in the writing of the work. But its blemishes cannot be ignored, and from the execution of the work, one gets the sense that this was really Niffenegger’s debut novel instead of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Niffenegger is reportedly at work on her third novel, and one can still hope that she has some gas left in the tank to pen something utterly compelling and charming. But Her Fearful Symmetry proved one thing to this reader: after closing the cover for a final time on this book, I couldn’t wait to re-read The Time Traveler’s Wife yet again.