Each and every one of us must deal with loss at some point in our life. Whether it is the loss of a love or a life, we are forever affected. Sometimes, the ache is so complete, the attachment so deep, that we are willing to do almost anything to fill that void.
Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, is a story about deep loss and deeper obsession, and about the dark pathways we are sometimes willing to tread in order to recapture lost love. The story revolves around twin sisters, Julia and Valentina, who inherit a recently deceased aunt’s entire estate, including her London apartment. The aunt, Elspeth, was the girls’ mother’s twin, and the younger twins have in common with the older sisters their physical features and their especially intense emotional connection.
The girls are confused but excited by their inheritance, since they did not know their aunt, and their mother, Edie, never spoke of Elspeth since they stopped communicating shortly after the twins’ birth. Their interest grows once they learn that their aunt’s will stipulates that they must live in her apartment for one full year before selling it, and that their parents are forbidden from entering the flat during that time period. The “older” twin (by six minutes), Julia, decides for her frail and meek sister that they will most certainly be moving to London to take advantage of the opportunity their late aunt has bestowed upon them, since living with their parents for the rest of their lives is not an attractive option.
Once in London, the girls set about learning the city, eventually meeting and befriending the neighbors that share the building they live in – Robert, their late aunt’s lover and the executor of her estate, and Martin, a shut-in with severe OCD whose wife recently left him for a new life in Amsterdam – as well as Elspeth, whose ghost is trapped in her old apartment and who spends her days seeking ways to communicate with the girls and Robert. Julia grows close to Martin, whom she views as a sort of project, and she attempts to help him overcome his disorder so he may be reunited with his estranged wife. Valentina finds herself drawn to Robert, who continues to suffer deep sadness at the loss of Elspeth, even a year after her death. Valentina also forms a bond with Elspeth’s ghost, since she is the only one who can actually see Elspeth, and spends hours at a time having conversations with her deceased aunt, with the help of a Ouija Board and the seal from a milk jug. These relationships, along with the apartment building’s proximity to a famous cemetery, and even the seasons as they play out against the backdrop of London, affect the twins and their own relationship, and alter the course of their lives in ways for which they could never have imagined or prepared themselves.
Based on my affection for Niffenegger’s first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, I had exceedingly high hopes for Her Fearful Symmetry. Once again, the author’s writing is captivating, and she paints a picture of London, the cemetery next to the twins’ apartment, and even the clothing worn by the twins themselves, which is so clear and colorful that even now I can close my eyes and picture it all as if I were seeing it myself. The story is an original one, the characters well-developed and the relationships authentic, but I admit I found myself a bit bored by the end of the book. I appreciated the story that was being told, and admired the beautiful language of the author, but I never became so invested in the book that I felt the excitement, fear or contempt that I know I should have at different points of the tale. It’s possible that after loving a book so well, as I did The Time Traveler’s Wife, that I felt a bit of a letdown with Her Fearful Symmetry.
Despite my own lackluster sentiments toward the book, I would still recommend it. The writing is so lovely and the story is indeed entertaining, and while I never fell in love with it, I enjoyed it and look forward to Audrey Niffenegger’s next offering.