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.