Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Medieval books
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Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger

3 Stars ***

I’m not a fan of ghosts. Although I believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe that death brings destination, and there aren’t spirits roaming the planet trying to figure out the afterlife. However, people are often haunted by their memories of the deceased. Things we wish had been said, moments we failed to share, things we left unresolved, and these torments can be as real and visceral as an actual haunting. It’s never a good thing when death leaves things undone, and even worse when a ghost comes into the picture.

Thus, the backdrop is set for the story of twenty-something twins Julia and Valentina Poole. It all starts when an unexpected letter from London arrives at their home in the Chicago suburbs. Their mother’s estranged twin Elspeth has died and left everything to them, including her wealth and her London flat near Highgate Cemetery where luminaries such as Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, and Karl Marx are buried. In order to receive it all there are only two stipulations: the girls must live in the flat for one year before they sell it, and their parents Jack and Edie, must not enter the flat for any reason.

The girls accept the terms of Elspeth’s will, move to London, and quickly develop relationships with the residents of their building, all of them haunted. There is Robert, a scholar of Highgate Cemetery, and love of Elspeth, haunted by his memory of her; Martin, a brilliant creator of crosswords suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder; Martin’s wife Marijke, tormented by memories of the man that Martin once was; and Elspeth who is haunted by the memories of the life she might have had, as her specter roams her flat in loneliness, until she slowly comes to the attention of Robert, Julia and Valentina.

I am a big fan of Niffenegger’s well-received first novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. Surprisingly, her second work was more enjoyable for me than her first. Surprisingly, because previous reviews have rated Her Fearful Symmetry  as a much worse novel: more incoherent, choppy, and sophomoric. I actually found that it took less effort to read Her Fearful Symmetry than it did The Time Traveler’s Wife. Like her premier novel, which left many questions unanswered for me, Niffenegger’s second work presented a fresh perspective of the traditional story form, and like her previous work added a few twists at the end. I suspect that many were disappointed because they didn’t enjoy the surprises she had in store, the journey didn’t go quite as they expected, and she failed to develop some of the richness present in The Time Traveler’s Wife. In addition, I think the novel suffered from poor editorial support, which would have helped Niffenegger develop a richer, more robust tale.

Like many, I wish that Niffenegger spent more time developing the final chapters. They seemed to be a bit more sketchy than the beginning of the book, which was fairly well-developed (although it too had some moments that were irrelevant to the tale). It appeared as if Niffenegger rushed to finish her story, forcing it along, without taking time to develop things a bit more fully for the reader. Perhaps the tale was much clearer in her mind, or she was simply pressured by page limits and deadlines. The result is that she failed to successfully communicate her main point, which is that there are times in our lives when we are all haunted. There were moments near the tale’s end when the story bordered on the ridiculous. However, because I could sense some of her intentions, I was able to overlook these weaknesses. It appears others weren’t.

For me, the biggest disappointment was Niffenegger’s failure to focus more attention on a few of the story’s silent characters. The city of London, Highgate Cemetery, as well as Martin’s flat. While there was some history and detail provided, Niffenegger seemed more interested in focusing on her human characters and less on their environment. This was a tragic oversight, which in my opinion prevented her from developing the richness of character that she was seeking. Often, a character’s environment reveals much more about the individual, while creating a rich tapestry that helps move the story along.

In the end, however, I was delighted to see some of the characters overcome the things that haunted them, while moving forward into the brightness of their life ahead. They were learning to experience the richness of the moment, enjoying the opportunities for living that surrounded them. Others remained haunted by the specters of their past, unable to shake the ghosts that remained, empty shells waiting for death to finally take them. Trapped in their own memories, torn by their own desires, they found life far more empty than anything that death could bring.

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