RELEASE DATE: 29 September 2009
FORMAT: Paperback, 402 pages
GENRE: Paranormal, Ghost Story
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 London. When 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 another.
The 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 behind. Niffenegger 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. (Goodreads)
The story opens with the death of Elspeth Noblin and Niffenegger uses this scene and the subsequent funeral to introduce the reader to the majority of the characters in the story. Despite the austerity this opening scene it was beautifully written and from Elspeth’s perspective which I thought was unique. In the early chapters, Niffenegger also introduces Elspeth’s twin sister Edie, her husband Jack and the twins who soon become the focal point of the story. We meet Robert, Elspeth’s much younger boyfriend, Martin, a neighbour who has crippling OCD and his wife Marijke. The funeral itself is held in Highgate Cemetery and it is here where I think we meet the most unsuspecting of characters, the cemetery itself. Niffenegger describes the surroundings with much more depth and sincerity than she does many of her characters, and Highgate Cemetery is no exception. It is as much a focal point in the plot as Elspeth, Robert and the twins are and I looked forward to the scenes that were based there.
We soon find that while Elspeth died she hasn’t actually left and is now a ghost trapped in her apartment, the same apartment she has bequeathed to the nieces she has never met. Elspeth longs to make up for lost time and to start a relationship with the twins, Valentina and Julia despite the fact she is now a ghost. Niffenegger uses the relationship between Elspeth and the twins, the twins and the neighours Robert and Martin and their own relationship to dominate the plot. I think it is Niffenegger’s decision to base the story around these relationships that lets the book down. I didn’t find any of the characters that likeable but rather unsympathetic, completely self-centred and not very interesting in their own right. Perhaps this is what Niffenegger intended but the result for me was that I didn’t really care what happened to them. I looked more forward to the scenes where the characters went to the cemetery, around Highgate or to other parts of London than I did whether Elspeth made her ghostly presence known, if Robert gets over her death or if the twins gained their independence from each other. Perhaps because I live London I found the scenes describing the landscape and landmarks more entertaining than I did the characters.
It’s hard to describe what the story is about without giving it away but I found the plot very predictable to the extent it was like I had already read the book. It wasn’t until the very final chapter that I didn’t predict well in advance what was going to play out and it was in this chapter, based purely around two of the characters that I enjoyed the most.
HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY was a beautifully written book with a rich description of Highgate Cemetery and areas on London. For me these were the best parts of the story and I was oddly excited when the characters went to one of my favourite restaurants. Even though I was immediately drawn into the story I found it very predictable and had guessed what was going to happen very early on to the point that it was like I had read the book before. I found it difficult to reconcile the fact that I didn’t like any of the characters, finding them all intensely self-centred, while at the same time loving the setting and prose. I feel that Nieffenegger was just slightly short of writing a really fantastic novel with her unlikeable and unconvincing characters. If you like a book that has a story rich in descriptive scenery rather than great characterization or need a beach/holiday read then HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY may be the book for you.
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