I Should Not Have Been Fearful of Her Fearful Symettry

Monday, February 14, 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry is the second novel by author Audrey Niffenegger, author of the much admired The Time Traveler's Wife.  As someone who read and loved, loved, triple loved TTTW, I was a little nervous picking up Her Fearful Symmetry.  What if her second novel couldn't live up to the mind-bending, mind-blowing amazingness of the first?  Well, I should have had more faith in Ms. Niffenegger (sorry, Audrey-maybe we could meet at Uncle Julio's for margaritas and I can make it up to you!).  Her Fearful Symmetry, while a completely different sort of novel, is in fact pretty amazing itself.

Her Fearful Symmetry tells the story of two different sets of twins, and the people who love them.  The first set, Elspeth and Edie, have not seen or spoken to each other in nearly 20 years.  When Elspeth finds that she is dying of cancer, she leaves all of her possessions, including her flat in London, to Valentine and Julia, the twin daughters of her estranged sister.  The only condition is that they have to live in the flat for one year to inherit anything.  Little does Elspeth know when he makes that condition that she will be there with them.  After her death she finds herself an insubstantial ghost in her flat, unable to leave.  Valentine and Julia have their own issues.  Julia is fiercely insistent that the girls stay together always, even though Valentine feels smothered by her sister's constant presence and yearns to break free.  It is this desire that leads to a decision that changes everything, for everyone, living or dead.

It is fitting that a central feature of the novel is Highgate Cemetery in London, a rather famous Victorian era cemetery.  There is much about this novel that reminds me of Victorian-era stories.  Their fiction tended to be almost as cluttered as their mantelpieces and pianos.  Lots of characters, lots of plot lines, lots of intrigue.  The relationship between the twins borders on creepy, and you can feel Valentine's restlessness and claustrophobia quite clearly.  Her relationship with her dead aunt's lover is also a little creepy, though he is frankly the most likeable character in the book.  The big family secret that underlies a great deal of the book drives the story, making it a page turner.  When the big reveal finally comes, I thought I had it all figured out-and I was wrong.  I love that, when  a book can surprise me.  And then surprise me again with what happens in the aftermath of the truth.  Valentine's fate is the very definition of cruel irony.  All in all, this novel lives up to my very high expectations for Ms. Niffenegger's writing, if not being quite as engaging a story for me as her first, amazing novel. 

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