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Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

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Curses are common in ghost stories. It's too bad the dreaded sophomore curse has worked its way into Audrey Niffenegger's ghost tale, Her Fearful Symmetry (Scribner). That happens when the writer of a popular or sometimes brilliant first novel — in this case, The Time Traveler's Wife — turns out a second effort that fails to live up to expectations.

To be fair, Niffenegger did have a formidable challenge. The Time Traveler's Wife was so intricately plotted and filled with characters who change in such dramatic ways that it would be hard for her to match this literary work, much less top it. Still, Her Fearful Symmetry falls down in so many desultory ways that it's difficult to imagine it was written by the same author. Whereas Time Traveler was a lively romance set in contemporary Chicago, Symmetry is a stiff (in all senses of the word) historical chiller set next to the famous Highgate Cemetary in London. Time Traveler played with the conventions of science fiction, although it really was a character-based piece of literature. Symmetry pretends to be literature but devolves into cheap thrills by book's end.

Symmetry begins with a strange bequest from recently deceased Elspeth Noblin, who has left her London flat and all her belongings to twins Julia and Valentina Hargrove, her nieces. What's strange is that the girls' mother, Edie, is Elspeth's twin, and she's been cut out of the will entirely. In fact, the elder twins haven't spoken since the girls were born.

The strangely tiny and naive (and whiny) American girls set out for London, noses in guidebooks, and chattering with taxi drivers for information. They find their flat next door to Highgate Cemetary, which causes a gulp or two, but they are determined to shoulder on.

Downstairs neighbor Robert, an academic doing a dissertation on the famous people buried in Highgate Cemetary, was Elspeth's lover. After a reasonable period of mourning, he finds himself drawn to the twins, Valentina in particular.

All this goes on under the ghostly eyes of the spectral Elspeth, who has re-formed in an invisible state in her old apartment. At times curious about the girls and at times jealous, Elspeth quickly reveals herself to be a horrid shrew who was not to be trusted in life and definitely not in the afterlife. Still, she loves to play the part of darling aunt and dashes about, making herself known to the twins, spelling out letters in the dust. Then she uses a Ouija board. Finally, she pushes a pencil held in someone's hand to spell out her messages. Robert learns of Elspeth's ghost and becomes unhinged about his attraction to Valentina.

Meanwhile, there is a touching subplot about the upstairs neighbor, Martin, who has a devastating case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He can't leave his flat, and his wife has called it quits. Julia slips upstairs to see him and brings him medication that she coyly labels "vitamins." The entire story is sweet and richly textured — yet has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the novel.

Back downstairs something ghastly goes wrong when Elspeth is playing with a kitten. She avoids disaster, but the event sets both the ghost and Valentina thinking. Together they cook up a plan that is bound for disaster. Robert, who is shackled into working with their plan, discovers the reason Elspeth and Edie split so many years ago. After the massive build-up, the reader expects a whopper of a scandal. Let's just say, the event is underwhelming — but it does cast Elspeth in a bad light.

By the book's end, Niffenegger has abandoned all sense. It's easy to see who the villain and the victim will be, but no one steps in the stop the horror. It's like watching one of those teen slasher movies: don't open the door! But, of course, they do. After the damage is done, and hearts are broken forever, no one follows up the gaps in logic.

Elspeth laughs in the end, but this is no spoiler. It's fairly obvious that this ghost has been haunting young girls for some time. That's the problem. The characters never learn a thing, never change, never are affected by events swirling around them. If the characters aren't moved, how are the readers supposed to feel?

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About Lynn Voedisch

  • Lynn Voedisch

    Sad to say, Melanie, the plotting that was so brilliant in TTW is just not evident in this novel. What I thought was so perfectly wrought in AN’s first book, has been substituted by a mediocre ghost yarn that takes forever to gather up steam and then heads pell mell to a senseless conclusion. Even the subplot, which would have made a lovely short story, is weirdly out of place. I got the feeling she felt rushed here–although why, I don’t know.

  • I’m sad but not surprised to hear that Niffenegger’s book doesn’t live up to the Time Traveler’s Wife, which I loved but which also felt like one of those tour-de-force first books that’s been worked over for years in draft form. Sophomore efforts — even those that take six years to come out — sometimes suffer from a lack of scrutiny when an author’s first book has been such a publishing phenomenon. I look forward to reading it no matter what it’s flaws, because Niffenegger’s plotting is so unique. She has something to teach us about story structure, that’s for sure!