From the first page, I was drawn into Audrey Niffenegger's new novel and could not put it down.
The main storyline is that of "the twins" Valentina and Julia, Americans and mirror-image twins, who come to London to live in a flat that was bequeathed to them by an aunt they had never met. Their aunt, Elspeth, left them the flat with a few conditions, the first of which that they are to live in the flat together for one year. Elsepth is also the identical twin of Valentina and Julia's mother, Edie. Twins of twins.
Within the same week of Elspeth's death, a neighbor, Mariyke, leaves her husband, Martin, who lives in the flat upstairs. In the flat downstairs is Robert, Elspeth's lover. Both figuratively and literally, the twins are caught in the middle of the lives of the men, essential filling the voids left by the other two women. We learn more about these characters upstairs and down and are swept up in their own story lines as well -- especially that of Martin, whose OCD keeps him from leaving the flat. Martin is not the only one who doesn't leave the flat. Have I mentioned that Elspeth has not left the flat? Her ghost resides there, and eventually learns how to communicate with the living. Elspeth's ghost learns learns to do lots of things.
Not a character in the traditional sense, but the building where the twins live in London is adjacent to the famous Highgate Cemetery, which takes on a life of its own. Ironically, the cemetery is not where the spookiest events occur. Instead, it becomes a sanctuary of sorts, or a canvas upon which to tell this ghost story.
Niffenegger explores the twins' relationship, which on its own is compelling, as she peels away each layer and exposes one dysfunction at a time. I don't want to give too much away, but this is the one relationship that Niffenegger develops so completely, that it becomes the heart of the whole piece.
That is not to say the author doesn't develop the other characters and the other relationships in the novel. Martin and Mariyke's relationship alone could have easily supported its own novel. Their relationship was just as fascinating to me as any of the others. Julia and Martin, Valentina and Robert, Edie and Elspeth, Elspeth and Robert, Elspeth and Valentina -- all of these separate relationships were so well developed and in the center of it all were still Valentina and Julia, "the twins."
My friend, Sheri, had asked me to let her know if the book was "scary". Figuring that there were ghosts, cemeteries, mysterious characters, and looming secrets, this element of "scary" wasn't too far off the mark. That being said, this was not Stephen King-I-can't-sleep-without-all-the-lights-on scary. This was a good kind of spooky. I would even venture to say that there is the same kind of science fiction element to Her Fearful Symmetry as there was in The Time Traveler's Wife. No, no more time travel, but the reader must allow themselves the suspense of disbelief. You have to let yourself go there, to this alternate reality that Niffenegger creates for her readers. Once you do, the story will pull you in, and these characters will, pardon the pun, haunt you.
I find that I must say something about The Time Traveler's Wife. While the two books share a certain spirit, they are both beautifully unique. If Ms. Niffenegger chooses to take another 6 years to write her next novel, I am okay with that, as long as she continues to bring us brilliance.
Just a few of Audrey Niffenegger's interviews:
About the Book:
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Scribner (September 29, 2009)