Books: Her Fearful Symmetry

Recently I noticed Her Fearful Symmetry on the shelf of books on CD at the library. When I saw that it was by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, I grabbed it without even bothering to see what it was about.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first few hours of the book. I wasn’t sure where it was going, but Niffenegger writes well – at any rate in a style that pleases me – and I was willing to be patient. I was intrigued by the apparent mystery behind Elspeth leaving everything to her twin nieces, by upstairs neighbor Martin’s struggle with OCD, and then by the reappearance of Elspeth as a ghost in what is now the twins’ flat.

As ghost stories go, it seemed pretty tame. Elspeth is hardly the wise, loving aunt that Aunt Dimity is in the series I have been reading by Nancy Atherton (Dimity is also dead but participates in the story not as a ghostly presence but by the appearance of handwriting in a blue journal). But neither does she go about trying to scare everyone. She just wants them to realize she’s there, and relieve the boredom of her incorporeal afterlife.

The twins can’t seem to figure out what to do with their lives, though. They have always done everything together, but now Valentina begins to want a life apart from Julia. Julia likes learning things but has no interest in formal education or getting a job or committing herself to much of anything except taking care of Valentina, whose health has always been problematic.

Unlike some readers, I didn’t mind that the story jumps from one character to another, though gradually I realized that I liked Martin best, even though he seemed to be a secondary character. I wasn’t as fascinated by the extensive descriptions of Highgate Cemetery as some readers are, but I found them mildly interesting, and apparently a significant aspect of the plot and setting.

The conflict between the twins could have made an excellent story. The rest of us who are not twins are naturally curious about what it is like for those who are, how they are closer in many ways than most siblings yet also need to develop their individual personalities and lives.

At the same time there is a strange sort of love triangle between Valentina, Robert, and Elspeth. Robert, who lives in the flat below, was Elpeth’s much younger lover and has been grieving for her, but now he is attracted to Valentina, who is much younger than he is. And then there is Elspeth, who goes from existing only in Robert’s memory to “living” as a ghost and eventually able to communicate with them by means of automatic writing and by Ouija board.

I suppose even those two simultaneous conflicts could have been developed into a good story, but somehow this novel doesn’t go much of anywhere except downhill towards the end. I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I wasn’t prepared for just how creepy it got. The benign ghost story develops a bit of horror that is all that much worse for popping up so unexpectedly. (Apparently some readers figured out where things were going, but it took me very much by surprise.)

After finishing the book, I read some reviews, trying to put the novel in some sort of perspective. A number of reader reviews compare this book unfavorably with her previous novel. The Time Traveller’s Wife this is not; TTW was a poignant story about normal people trying to live in, and make sense of, an abnormal situation. In contrast, Her Fearful Symmetry has a shortage of even moderately well-adjusted, let alone likable, characters.”

I found it interesting to learn that the idea for the book began with the idea of an agoraphobic man and a girl who comes to visit him. The man became Martin, who has OCD rather than agoraphobia. Perhaps that helps explain why he is the most likable and believable character in the novel (though his recovery, the one positive outcome in the novel, has a highly improbable giant leap forward that occurs literally overnight).

Another good character is Jessica, who turns out to have been based on the real-life chairman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. She is a minor character, which is perhaps too bad. The cemetery itself plays a significant role, and I wonder if perhaps the book would have been better if the ideas it started with – Martin, the girl who visits, and the cemetery outside his window – had remained primary. (Interestingly, having learned a great deal about the cemetery as the setting for her novel, Niffenegger herself became a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery).

Perhaps the book would be effective as a tragedy if it were clearer just what character flaws led to the mess the people make of their lives. It’s reasonably clear with Elspeth – she is selfish, and being dead she lacks the basic human empathy that living people possess. Valentina and Robert are harder to make sense of.

Valentina vacillates between trying to assert her independence and allowing Julia to boss her around. She finally decides extreme measures are called for, but her idea is so over-the-top in its lack of sense that the reader would be inclined to question not her character so much as her sanity – yet there is no other indication of her losing touch with reality (unless you count chatting with a ghost, but that’s treated as normal in this story).

Robert’s behavior makes even less sense. Having been Elspeth’s lover he is hardly a callow youth, yet he suddenly becomes so shy when the twins arrive that several months go by without his so much as introducing himself, even though he lives right below them, and he takes to surreptitiously following them around London.

His divided loyalty between the living Valentina and the dead Elspeth is perhaps understandable, but his behavior when Valentina makes her ridiculous request is not. He naturally refuses. But then for unexplained reasons he ends up going along with it anyway.

One way to frame the whole thing is in terms of truth-telling. A discussion on points out that “Robert later realizes that with London Elspeth – she only tells you a portion of the truth – leaving out key details in order to distort things….She admits as much to him when he is asking what to tell Jessica and he has the realization that this is what she has been doing all along…”

Elspeth and her twin Edie (the girls’ mother) have some huge secret that they have kept from everyone for over twenty years. (Though when it finally comes out, it hardly seems worth all that anger and covering up.) The twins don’t exactly keep secrets but they are hardly open as to their motives in how they treat each other. Robert hides a number of secrets, although some of these have been imposed on him by Elspeth’s will.

Except in spy novels, deception rarely accomplishes anything wholesome. (And even in spy novels, at least those that delve into character as much as plot, the characters suffer from the necessity of living a lie.) It’s hardly surprising that so much hiding the truth would lead to so much grief. And one feels no sympathy for Elspeth when things do not turn out as she had wished.

An interesting insight in a book review in The New York Times describes the novel as “a search for Self in the midst of obsession with an Other.” Yes, I’d say there’s a lot of obsession in this book, Martin’s OCD being only the most obvious – and perhaps the most amenable to treatment.





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