Six Years After The Phenomenal Success Of The Time Traveler S Wife, Audrey Niffenegger Has Returned With A Spectacularly Compelling And Haunting Second Novel Set In And Around Highgate Cemetery In LondonWhen Elspeth Noblin Dies Of Cancer, She Leaves Her London Apartment To Her Twin Nieces, Julia And Valentina These Two American Girls Never Met Their English Aunt, Only Knew That Their Mother, Too, Was A Twin, And Elspeth Her Sister Julia And Valentina Are Semi Normal American Teenagers With Seemingly Little Interest In College, Finding Jobs, Or Anything Outside Their Cozy Home In The Suburbs Of Chicago, And With An Abnormally Intense Attachment To One AnotherThe Girls Move To Elspeth S Flat, Which Borders Highgate Cemetery In London They Come To Know The Building S Other Residents There Is Martin, A Brilliant And Charming Crossword Puzzle Setter Suffering From Crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Marjike, Martin S Devoted But Trapped Wife And Robert, Elspeth S Elusive Lover, A Scholar Of The Cemetery As The Girls Become Embroiled In The Fraying Lives Of Their Aunt S Neighbors, They Also Discover That Much Is Still Alive In Highgate, Including Perhaps Their Aunt, Who Can T Seem To Leave Her Old Apartment And Life BehindNiffenegger Weaves A Captivating Story In Her Fearful Symmetry About Love And Identity, About Secrets And Sisterhood, And About The Tenacity Of Life Even After Death Like so many other readers, I was enchanted by The Time Traveler s Wife There was a willing suspension of disbelief on my part which goes against my skeptical and cynical nature but the story was sweet and engaging enough to pull it off Not so much with Her Fearful Symmetry Again, through at least the first 2 3 of the book, I was willing to suspend disbelief and go with the story But then it just got ridiculous beyond the point where I enjoyed the story any Essentially a ghost story, Her Fearful Symmetry features two sets of twins, the older Elspeth and Edie, and Edie s daughters Valentina and Julia The story opens with Elspeth succumbing to leukemia in a London hospital Her twin sister and nieces have not seen her in than 20 years, as a rift between Elspeth and Edie as well as distance Edie lives in Chicago drove them apart Elspeth leaves everything to the twins, stipulating that they live in her London apartment for a year and their parents are not allowed to visit Elspeth s ghost lives in the apartment and eventually learns to communicate with the twins It takes a long time and some wonderful descriptive elements to get this far easily half the book There are some well drawn characters that add to the story particularly the OCD neighbor , but after this long set up, the story just devolves into absurdity Disappointing ending after a good start. This was difficult to put down but I deliberately tried to read slowly beause it was such a pleasure to read Niffenegger is one of the finest contemporary writers and noone does longing and stymied love better than she does.This book reminded me of Time Traveler s Wife as well as The Lovely Bones The stories center on an apartment building right off of Highgate Cemetery in London One apartment belongs to Elspeth Noblin who dies on the first page of the book and bequeaths the apartment to her twin nieces in America, with the stipulation that they must live there for a year before selling and that their mother, Elspeth s own twin, can never set foot in the apartment The top floor apartment is occupied by Martin, who suffers terribley from OCD Niffenegger s rendering of OCD is the most painful and seemingly realistic depiction that I ve come across Elspeth s somewhat younger lover lives in the first floor apartment and works as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery This book is well worth reading BUT you really need to suspend disbelief and just go with the really wild premise This is part love story, part ghost story, maybe even a little Sci Fi Suspenseful, surprising, and beautifully written. This is a very tricky book to review I thoroughly enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry Having heard plenty of mixed reviews about this one, I wasn t sure how I would find it On top of that, it was soon due back at the library, and I had 4 other library books calling my name desperately I needn t have worried This book definitely got me thinking and I like it when a book does that when it stays in my mind for a long time after I actually finished reading it.Her Fearful Symmetry is definitely a challenging book Challenging not because of writing style or incoherent ideas Challenging because it questions a lot of accepted conventions that you might have At least it did for me I remember feeling the same after reading The Time Traveler s Wife I would say that is the only similarity between the two books, that and Audrey s beautiful writing style.This book got me thinking about a lot of things, but primarily about the relationship between twins I have never known any twins, so I can t say how accurate Her Fearful Symmetry is on this topic But I like to believe she took an extreme case for telling her story The twins, first Elspeth and Edwina, and then Edwina s twin daughters, Julia and Valentina, are highly inseparable After being together for years, cracks are bound to appear What I found interesting, was how each set of twins responded to the troubles in their tightly woven fabric When the reason for the estrangement of Elspeth and Edwina was revealed however, I was a bit disappointed, since that wasn t something I would expect to drive close sisters apart, not after being so close and sharing everything for almost 25 years Maybe I am seeing it differently, but I expected something severe It just didn t seem a reasonable excuse to drive two twins apart, and worse, stay apart for years and not let any communications between the two parties I almost got the sense the twist was included as an afterthought, like it didn t really fit in there This was the only problem I had from this otherwise riveting read.Another huge element of this book is the relationship between lovers How far are you willing to go to keep your other half from finding some secret Especially if that secret is built on a lie Do you never wonder if your husband or boyfriend really loves you for who you are or for who he imagines you to be I found this question come up many a time in the relationships of both sets of twins It is tragic because it leads to a lot of doubts that could have been avoided It is sad because no one knows what s true any, and something the twins father, Jack, asks Robert towards the end gives an idea of the enormity of this predicament.This whole story is set around a graveyard, and as expected, we have ghosts too Elspeth returns as a ghost and is stuck in her apartment Valentina especially gets to know her better, and in the process the two make some very unpleasant discoveries I wouldn t go into that since it s a spoiler, but it s definitely a very strong issue and I think, unethical even in a haunted world The particular incident literally left me shell shocked and, to use the expression, gasping for air It s been a long time since a book did that to me I ve never been able to forgive the character responsible for it, but then Audrey Niffenegger s books don t really go in the directions you want them to They likely leave you with questions, tears sometimes, but in a strange way, satisfaction too, since they get you thinking than if circumstances had taken a much beaten path.There were some questions that I found unanswered as I read this book though, and one was, why only Valentina could see Elspeth s ghost eventually , or even sense it, while the rest could only feel the coldness of her touch It felt like a tantalizing mystery whose answer I waited for.I love Audrey Niffenegger s writing style That s something I enjoyed in The Time Traveler s Wife, as well, and I just found myself turning page after page, no matter how slow the story might be going Not that the story is slow, but there were a few chapters, that I didn t care much for when I was reading Like, one chapter showing Robert s nightly habit of sitting by the cemetery for a long time Another one, detailing Martin s disease and how he behaves After finishing the book though, I did realize they were important chapters since those attributes of the characters had great bearing on the story to follow.As in The Time Traveler s Wife, the one thing I struggled with in this book was the ease with which the characters accepted that which is not normal In the former, we didn t really have any one shriek with fright when a man came about saying he travels through time I doubt I would sanely accept someone telling me that In Her Fearful Symmetry, we have characters accepting that ghosts can exist Sure, I know there are a lot of people who believe in ghosts But wouldn t you still get that fierce creepy chill that emanates from your back Here I just noticed acceptance Maybe it is just as well, since the characters stay near a graveyard or work in it But I would have loved it if someone just shrieked and ran out of the house, once, just once.Overall, I loved this book and have a new respect for Audrey Niffenegger for writing about very unconventional issues I think you need a great deal of courage to write some of the things she wrote about, since they are issues you will either be yay and nay for, and we readers can t very easily accept everything we read about, just because it is written in print This one is a very different type of book from The Time Traveler s Wife, but nevertheless, a good one in its own right. Tyger Tyger burning brightIn the forests of the night,What immortal hand or eyeCould frame thy fearful symmetry William Blake, The Tyger When an acclaimed author Audrey Niffenegger takes a phrase from an inscrutable poem The Tyger , readers such as myself are apt to expect a great story Without a doubt Niffenegger s prose is elegant, her place descriptions London and Highgate Cemetery are exceptional, and her intricate plot has great promise.That promise is not fulfilled.Niffenegger speaks of ghosts that dissipate in to the ether, so to speak, because they haven t been dead long enough to figure out how to keep themselves together and harness their intent I like this viewpoint within the story Unfortunately, it also describes the story.We are introduced to several sets of twins who, as it turns out, are so focused on being twins that they in one case do fearful and silly things and in another case are relatively boring In each set, one twin wants freedom and the other wants the status quo Interesting Could have been, but it wasn t.At best, most of the characters were totally dysfunctional with the possible exception oddly enough of the man with OCD who lived in the flat upstairs, up above the American twins who come to London when their aunt Espeth dies and leaves them an apartment up above Robert who works as a volunteer at the adjoining Highgate Cemetery He was Espeth s lover both before and after she died.Like ghosts without sufficient practice and power to organize themselves and enjoy the afterlife with or without haunting the living , the plot becomes weaker and weaker as the novel goes on until on the final pages it evaporates altogether Yes, there s a grim resolution to it all, but it s a weak one and we no longer care.I suspect the author fell in love with the cemetery and wanted to write a story about it Naturally, the dead came to mind But they weren t strong enough to frighten us or make us care about the symmetry. Another Audrey Niffeneger book where I m not sure what or who I m supposed to root for Reading the Time Traveler s Wife I often thought the words BREAK UP WITH HIM, ALREADY while the rest of the world was weeping over DOOMED LOVE.Also, soulmates aren t real, and you don t have one.Back to the book at handI had lunch in a local cafe while Niffenegger was being interviewed about this book at the next table, and it made for GREAT eavesdropping, and I got hooked on the premise of this book I don t know who or what to root for I don t like anyone, but I often sympathize with their desires or motives The setting is DELICIOUSLY creepy She has a great sense of place I visualize the story taking place almost in Gorey style animation, like the opening credits of Mystery secondary characters were really well drawn It is a ghost story with a proper sense of dread Some things that happen in the story made me feel the dread and wrongness in my belly as a physical reaction I couldn t put it down Like is the wrong word I didn t like it I don t like it You won t like it But I enjoyed reading it.Good Halloween reading. I read Niffenegger s first novel before the days of Goodreads and I remembered when I decided to rate it, I wavered between 3 liked it and 4 stars really liked it I ended up opting for 4 stars, because I did remember so much of it due to its sense of place and its unique storytelling Her second novel has these same elements her strengths are obviously her imaginative story lines, which she roots in concrete reality But the story, which started out strong, lost its way long before the weak ending.My strongest complaints, though, are with some of the writing The point of view was all over the place, changing sometimes from sentence to sentence within a paragraph I don t have a problem with this kind of thing if it can be pulled off, but here it seemed inelegant and clunky even lazy And while the writing was very visual to great effect, in many instances some of the details were unnecessary and pedestrian.It had such potential and could have been so much. I have never read The Time Traveler s Wife, Ms Niffenegger s claim to fame, and after reading Her Fearful Symmetry it is very likely I never will This was not a bad book by any means but for me it simply failed to deliver the goose bumpy moments I so sincerely hoped for.Highgate Cemetary, London England All the variables were there, there were creepy mirror twins, cooky neighbors, a spooky cemetery, a mystery to be solved and even a ghost in residence But nope, just because the variables were there it didn t mean the equation was in balance What really let me down the most was I thought this was a Gothic novel, my favorite flavor But it wasn t There were only three truly Gothic aspects of this novel and all were totally wasted The ghostly elements could have been turned into so much There was a beautiful scene early on, of children playing in the graveyard, and it was obvious even at that point that these children are ghosts Yet they were not mentioned again until the very end While Niffeneger clearly did her research on Highgate Cemetery, it was delivered in sections that felt like lectures than quality fiction The setting should have created an atmosphere, a feel of the dark, ghostly and ethereal elements the author clearly wanted to portray, yet it did not It was clinical Further to this, the Gothic genre is not just about cemeteries and ghosts it s about horror, and human nature, the gender roles that underpin society, and the evils that men and women do Only one aspect of the whole novel achieved this, and it was dropped into the plot near the end, executed swiftly, and then rushed so much you could literally miss it.So damn it, I wanted this to be than it was Three Stars, Meh. My initial reaction was that I really disliked this book On reflection, I still really dislike it but for a different reason than I thought I think what Niffenegger was trying to do here was present a group of deeply dysfunctional characters put them in a ghost story let nature take its course Why anyone would want to read such a thing is beyond me, but there it is Elspeth Noblin dies leaves her London flat, which overlooks Highgate Cemetery, to her nieces, 20 year old American twins Julia Valentina The only conditions of the bequest are that they live in the flat for a year before selling it if they wish to that their parents Elspeth s sister Edie these two are also twins and Edie s husband Jack never set foot in it We re led to believe that there s some deep, dark secret behind this Much later, we find out what it is By that time we a don t care and b realize the people really affected by the secret are Edie Jack two side characters who appear in the first 74 pages of the book, then not again until page 333 of 400 And Jack knew the secret all along, of course AND NEVER SAID ANYTHING Wait while my head explodes Elspeth, of course, returns as a ghost I couldn t figure out how I was supposed to feel about her until close to the end of the book Am I supposed to like her or hate her Was she good or bad I m OK with ambiguity a willing suspension of disbelief, but if a writer is doing a book about a creepy cemetery ghosts weird twin girls who dress in white twin swapping grave robbing it really helps if the writer gives us some clues as to who is good and who s bad Niffenegger beats us over the head with some of the plot points see below , but doesn t lead us into the motivation behind her characters actions This is the writer s job Julia Valentina are the freakish twins They re 20 they still dress alike mostly in a lot of white Oh, because they re weird and ghostly I GET it They re pathologically dependent on one another Julia is the dominant twin who has, throughout their lives, decided where they should go what they should do, while calling her sister Mouse telling her that she ll never be able to exist alone, blah blah blah There s about 300 pages of Julia Valentina being snippy with one another, or depressed, or floating aimlessly about making tea, or bothering the neighbors No wonder Robert doesn t want to meet them Robert is Elspeth s boyfriend, why Ms N would want to make this guy her male lead, I have no idea A ineffectual character you will never meet I d like him better if he was evil, but he s just Nothing Ms Niffenegger pushes him here there on the page, but he never comes to life in any way that makes sense He s writing a research thesis on Highgate Cemetery has been doing so for years He can t finish it He also leads cemetery tours He s obsessed with Elizabeth Siddall he says, perhaps because she was beautiful and died young Oh, Siddall was a woman who ended up being dug up after she was dead by her lover, OH OH OH foreshadowing I can t possibly see what s coming next He s having trouble getting over Elspeth, but her specific directions in her will were for him to meet the twins when they arrive help them out in their new surroundings If he s so besotted with Elspeth, why doesn t he do what she wanted We don t know except that the twins really are insufferable I wouldn t want to meet them either So he stalks them for what seems like a few hundred pages Why Why Oh, so that he can meet them IN THE CEMETERY where they finally show up for a tour Page 171 literally begins a chapter with, Days went by and nothing much happened Wait while my head explodes again Robert finally begins to get over Elspeth, thanks to his growing attraction to Valentina, though Valentina of course looks like Elspeth At this point, Ghost Elspeth figures out a way to appear to Robert the twins talk to them Then there s a few hundred pages of Robert Elspeth talking, the twins Elspeth talking, the twins being increasingly annoyed with one another as Julia tries to exert control over Valentina Elspeth realizes she can wait for it take the soul from a living being which kills that living being if she s quick she can put it back She finds out she can do this BY ACCIDENT Even though her ghost can t so much as push a door shut Hmmm OK.So then there s animal death but Niffenegger makes it OK by ACTUALLY HAVING THE TWINS CALL THE CAT LITTLE KITTEN OF DEATH when they adopt it so you know it s coming then Valentina Elspeth cook up a crazy idea which makes no sense, even Elspeth doesn t want to do it at first, Robert thinks it s a bad idea but oh, he goes along with it, because.why He doesn t know but he tells Valentina not to trust Elspeth because she wasn t very nice, even when she was alive Wait wait, I thought this was the couple who had a love beyond death for one another On page 316 Robert finally brings himself to read Elspeth s diaries which she s left to him Oh, big secret is revealed.and.that s that Seriously Nothing happens, because the secret has nothing to do with what s been going on for the past 250 pages And then, 30 pages later, you find out Jack Edie s husband, father of the twins knew all along What the No kidding, this whole part of the book could have been left out you d never know it except Niffenegger needed a plot device that would keep the girls parents out of London for a year Oh, and then the inevitable happens we get past that then Edie Jack are going back to America leaving their daughter behind because she won t come with us Ms N., do you want to make your characters come to life Parents don t leave their child behind, alone, in a country thousands of miles away, when their other child has just died even if the child is 20 years old The parents would drag her off protesting, or they d stay themselves Having firmly established that if you re a twin you must perforce be mentally ill, Niffenegger goes soft on us lets us know that it must be better to be dead a happy ghost, rather than alive forced to deal with your sister Yeeeccccchhhh In fact the next part of the book, where Elspeth has taken over the girl s body is living with Robert, is interesting to me but just when it s getting interesting What s it like to live in a body that doesn t belong to you What s it like to live with the woman you loved, who died, who you have also described as not very nice, who came back as a ghost killed a 20 year old girl while you stood by watched, now you re living with your love s soul in the dead girl s body But at this very interesting part of the book, it ends Though apparently Robert didn t really like the dead alive thing You know who I really liked in this book, believed in as characters Martin Marijke Totally a side story but I loved them I also thought a lot could have been done with the Highgate Cemetery setting the book felt strangely flat lacking in atmosphere to me in that way I ve been at Highgate it s pretty creepy There was lots of historical information in the book, lots of description about what it s like to work there, which seems in fact very business like I don t doubt that a cemetery is a business, after all The flats where all of them were living seemed a lot creepy than the cemetery If you want to read a really good, atmospheric, creepy ghost story with excellent character development, read Sarah Waters The Little Stranger It also occurs to me you know who could write a really great psychological mystery about these same characters, only leaving out the ghosts but just going with the facts of their lives as Niffenegger presents them Barbara Vine This kind of thing is right up her alley A bunch of weird people living in an old building in London what happens to them There d be a death, but no ghosts and it would be BELIEVABLE You d still hate the characters, but with Vine you might understand what makes them tick Niffenegger doesn t help us out there As for Her Fearful Symmetry it was so bad it ll probably be made into a hit movie Just add vampires Congratulations. Audrey Niffenegger s Her Fearful Symmetry is for the most part, a good, solid old fashioned ghost story with a contemporary setting The backdrop to the novel, and what to an extent becomes the dominant character in the story, is London s Highgate Cemetery which is paradoxically an obvious but inspired and perfect choice It s a fascinating, hugely atmospheric and wonderful place to visit and is ideal as the setting for a haunting story of the supernatural such as this one Audrey Niffenegger worked as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery whilst researching the novel and successfully conveys the feel, atmosphere and history of the Cemetery throughout This provides the novel with foundation of authenticity on which to base a story which clearly requires the reader to display a certain degree of suspended disbelief There are nods to Dickens throughout, echoes of Susan Hill and notably to an extent Mary Shelley Her Fearful Symmetry is Niffenegger s second novel and is a far less showy or flashy affair than its predecessor, the hugely commercially successful The Time Traveler s Wife As a whole Her Fearful Symmetry is better written thought out and delivers a stronger narrative as well as a satisfying story than Time Traveler s Wife Neither does it feel as self consciously clever as its predecessor Clearly there are some plot contrivances, implausibilities and improbabilities to Fearful Symmetry yet somehow Niffenegger manages to get the story as a whole to successfully hang together.Niffenegger also manages to avoid creating what could have been a very clich d, overdone, predictable and tired contemporary ghost story especially considering the basic elements here identical mirror twins, Highgate Cemetery, a grieving widower, an inheritance with strict conditions etc, etc But somehow, avoid it she does and in the process delivers a strong, convincing and compelling story It is an altogether gentler story than Time Traveler s Wife and all the better for that.
Audrey Niffenegger born June 13, 1963 in South Haven, Michigan is a writer and artist She is also a professor in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Columbia College Chicago Niffenegger s debut novel, The Time Traveler s Wife 2003 , was a national bestseller The Time Traveler s Wife is an unconventional love story that centers on a man with a strange genetic disorder that causes him to unpre
- 406 pages
- Her Fearful Symmetry
- Audrey Niffenegger
- 12 July 2019 Audrey Niffenegger