Her Fearful Symmetry – Book Review

As with many writers and musicians, the true test of their talent lies in their sophomore offering; what they are able to produce after a successful premiere. Sometimes it could be luck, other times it could be just good timing, but the only way to know for sure if the artist was only lucky on their first offering, is for them to come out with an equally strong or stronger second book. In this case, I believe that Ms. Niffenegger has done just that; she’s produced a better and much stronger work than her first.

Some would argue that her first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was a fantastic breakthrough novel and that it is much better than her new novel, what with the success of the movie deal and the huge public awareness of the debut novel. However, Her Fearful Symmetry is more intelligent and well-rounded than her first novel. The story starts in motion, which is a hallmark of the most successful and seasoned writers, as well, there is a palpable maturity in Ms. Niffenegger’s prose since her first novel. She is more in command of her writing and there is more confidence exuding from this story than previously seen.

The story is based around the twins of a twin mother and aunt. The aunt and the twins mother are estranged for unknown reasons. The young, twenty-year-old twins (Julia and Valentina) live in Chicago, while their Aunt, Elsbeth, has remained in her native London. As mentioned, you have the feeling that the story is in motion, and this becomes apparent when we meet Elsbeth in the last few weeks of her life. The beauty with which Ms. Niffenegger unfolds the final days of her life and her relationship with her soul-mate, Robert, is quite literally breathtaking. The strength and dignity Elsbeth displays in her final days are equally matched with her mate’s commitment, care, and love he provides for her as she succumbs to the relentlessness of the cancer. With the feeling of joining an ongoing story, she deftly makes the reader a part of something as real and tangible as being there. She places you into the immediacy of the moment from the first page, and this is a major part of what makes this novel work so well.

From this adept beginning, we are treated to a first rate novel that is part ghost story, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story with a well constructed twist at the end. The character development, in particular, is excellent. The twins are mirror image twins rather than purely identical. That is, they literally are mirror images of each other, even to the point that Valentina has her heart on the right side of her chest. They are as much like two sides of a coin as they are identical. To look at them you would see double, but anything beyond the surface shows the dichotomy that they are.

The story continues when the London flat that Elsbeth lived in for many years is bequeathed to the twins in Elsbeth’s will, along with most of her money. The only stipulations are that the twins parents are forbidden to ever enter the apartment and the twins must come and live in  the apartment, which is fully furnished and full of Elsbeth’s clothes and belongings, for one year. If they don’t follow these instructions then the estate reverts to a charity named by Elsbeth. Robert lives in the flat downstairs and he is engaged to observe the twins and help them when needed.

The other character of note is the older man who lives upstairs from the twins, Martin. His wife of twenty five years has just left him, not because she doesn’t love him anymore, but because she can not live with his obsessive-compulsive behavior anymore. Along with scrubbing surfaces and showering for hours on end, Martin is now unable to leave the flat. The part of his brain that makes the rules tells him that he can’t. He knows that it isn’t right, but he also knows that he is unable to do anything about it. Refusing medication or treatment for the condition is a recognized part of the illness. Martin knows all of these things, he is an extremely intelligent man, in fact, he has a genius IQ. Having an advanced degree from Oxford, he works with several Museums in London as a translator of many and ancient languages. In his spare time, he creates extremely complex crossword puzzles under a pseudonym for a leading British newspaper. Martin’s story is an engaging and interesting contrast to what is happening in the rest of the 3 flat building.

While this is a well crafted and entertaining followup to “The Time Travelers Wife”, it does have a couple of troublesome areas. The book is billed as a ghost story, but this is one of the things that bother me about it. The ghost aspect in general is somewhat contrived and at times strained. The way in which ghosts attempt to interact with people has an artificial ring to it. It doesn’t overwhelm the story, but it is kind of irritating because the ghost aspect is a vital part of the novel. The sub-plot concerning Martin and his attempts at breaking down the walls that OCD place around him is clunky in sections and there are times when it starts to become quite involved, almost overtaking the main action of the novel. I didn’t mind it at the time because I quite enjoyed him, however, as interesting as it was, it started to take the novel in a certain direction and then suddenly you would find yourself back into the main action of the twins and Robert and how they are faring. It was confusing and somewhat misleading, because Martin’s story could almost have been a novel in its own right.

While I have taken the time to point out these distractions, do not let me dissuade you from reading this book. It is very well written and highly entertaining. It is well paced and carries the distinction of being well researched. I could really see where the story took place, right down to the little details. Ms. Niffenegger is highly skilled in this aspect of crafting her story and she wields a fantastic ending to top it all off. The twist she puts in the plot is well placed and believable. She doesn’t betray the readers trust by conveniently relying on a deus ex machina type of ending, or by introducing a new supernatural aspect to wrap things up. Indeed, she maintains the integrity that she builds throughout the story.

I am lucky to have yet another great read to present here. I was able to finish 2009 with several satisfying novels. I am looking forward to the next story from Audrey Niffenegger, which she is already in the process of writing. If “Her Fearful Symmetry” is anything to go by, we are on the verge of witnessing a rising star in the literary world.

Todd Hurley – The Hurley Edition