Stories about twins often tease the senses, especially when the twins in question are identical. As readers, we revel in them because so many authors paint them as symmetrical, opposite ends of the same spectrum. Indeed, often authors will show us twins as interchangeable, and they often will pretend to be each other, usually to comical effect. There is absolutely nothing comical about the twins we see in Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.
The story revolves around a cemetery in London, and features a ghost as one of its protagonists, so the setting is already a bit macabre, and it continues its pattern throughout. Twins Julie and Valentina move into their Aunt Elspeth’s flat after her death, as she has bequeathed it to them in her will, for whatever reasons. It is the seemingly arbitrary selection of the girls as her heirs when she had never met them previously that sets this story off on uneven footing.
While the young ladies are described in myriad detail, something is still wrong with them, and we as readers can sense it from the start. However, it isn’t clear what’s off about them until about halfway through the book when the marginally younger, and more vulnerable, sister, Valentina, begins entertaining ideas from the ghost of Elspeth about hosting her ghost inside of Valentina’s body. It is that moment, when we realize this may become a reality, that we start to detach from both of them.
That’s where Her Fearful Symmetry falls apart as a narrative tale where we believe in the characters and their motivations, and also when it tips its hand, giving away its highly scripted ending. Where Niffenegger succeeds in The Time Traveler’s Wife is where she ultimately fails in its follow-up — in keeping her secrets and keeping the readers guessing right up until the very end. It is perhaps this one issue that changes this novel from a must-read to a head-scratcher.
That being said, the writing is definitely on par with my expectations, if a tad bit treacly at its end. The mood is decidedly morose, a bit more morose than it needs to be for the scenes without Elspeth’s ghost, and the man who was Elspeth’s lover is just not realized as a character. With how important he becomes to the end of the novel, he just wasn’t fleshed out enough for the reader to really care as the story wound to its inevitable conclusion.
I enjoyed the portions of the book that took place inside of Elspeth’s head and featured her recollections of her own childhood with her own twin sister (the girls’ mother), and explained why the two of them had become estranged. In fact, it is this estrangement and the surprise revelations as it relates to the two of them that is reminiscent of the type of superior writing and revelation in stages that made The Time Traveler’s Wife so dynamic. If the book was only made up of these sections it would be a success, but unfortunately the other parts come along for the ride.
I would recommend this book for readers who enjoy quality descriptive writing. Throughout the novel I could clearly visualize the settings and characters. However, if you’re looking for the mystery that this book was supposed to be, there really was only one, while the other failed to materialize.
I give this novel FOUR stars.