After her success of The Time Traveller’s Wife, the much awaited Niffenegger’s novel is here. The novel opens with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who bequeaths her London flat and its contents to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister, Edwina, back in Chicago, on conditions that the girls be 21-yaer-old and that Edwina and husband, Jack are not to visit them on their London flats. These 20-year-old dilettantes, Julia and Valentina, move to London, eager to try on a new experience.
Besides dressing in one of their obsessively matching outfits, Valentina is a perfect symmetry to Julia. Valentina has a condition called Situs inversus, all her internal organs, including her hearts are on the opposite side of Julia. Her Fearful Symmetry refers to Valentina, obviously. Symmetry, Cemetery, good wordplay. Valentina is asthmatic and is always sickly, she can’t find her directions and she depends on Julia to take care of her. The twins are inseparable.
She was used to the profound intimacy of her life with Julia, and she did not know what a cloud of hope and wild illusion is required to begin a relationship. Valentina was alike the veteran of a long marriage who has forgotten how to flirt. So the twins had remained virgins. As she lingers in the world of uninitiated. ‘What was it like?’ they asked each friend. The answers were vague. Sex was a private joke: you had to be there.
The historic Highgate Cemetery, which borders Elspeth’s home, serves as an inspired setting as the twins become entwined in the lives of their neighbors: Elspeth’s former lover, Robert Fanshaw lives downstairs and is writing a thesis on the Highgate Cemetery; Martin Wells, lives upstairs, an agoraphobic crossword-puzzle creator, stricken with OCD (Obssessive Compulsive Disorder) spent his days stranded in bed or scrubs the floor with bleach till his hands bleeds and misses his wife, Marijke who left him for Amsterdam to be liberated from his sickness; and the ethereal Elspeth herself, struggling to adjust to the afterlife as a ghost, whose idea of entertainment is haunting the living with Ouija Board and writing on dust.
Robert mourned for the loss of Elspeth but soon found comfort in the younger version of Elspeth, Valentina. Only Valentina can see and communicate with Elspeth’s ghost. When Robert found out about Elspeth’s ghost, he is torn between his faithful love to Elspeth and new found infatuation with Valentina. Will Robert choose to go back to the memory for Elspeth or will Robert choose to move on with Valentina?
There is a perverse pleasure in reading this book. You know the whole idea is crappy but you wanted to know what happens to the characters at the end. I find the inhabitants of the flat self-centred and weird. Robert Fanshaw stalked the twins for 8 weeks (through underground, parks etc.) before formally introduced to the twins (why??!!). Elspeth agreed to help Valentina separate from her twins (more why?!! considering the shocking truth between Elspeth and the twins). Robert agreed to become a grave robber to resurrect Valentina and why does Valentina feels suicidal when her life is going her way? Although she is finding a way to stay away from her dominant twin Julia, surely there is a way less drastic than faking her own death and thinking she will be resurrected successfully, especially when she had seen how her pet cat resurrection experiment failed?!! (Sorry for the spoiler).
I have to give it to Niffenegger in portraying the heartbreaking tale of two people who love each other but can’t be together – The unattainable is always attractive, as she said. The way Martin yearns for Marijke, Robert mourned for Elspeth. Niffenegger weaves a haunting tale about the complications of love, identity, and sibling rivalry and brought these quirky, troubled characters to life, but readers may need to suspend their own logic and supernatural disbelief as the story winds to its twisty and disappointing end.
The ingenuous structure of The Time Traveler’s Wife is absent in this haphazard rendition of 6 or more characters in Her Fearful Symmetry. At several occasions I questioned myself if the success of The Time Traveler’s Wife is a fluke.
My verdict: 3/5
An entertaining read with surprise unfolding of secrets and I finished it in one sitting and in one day, but I wouldn’t pester anyone to read it. To each his / her taste, die hard Niffenegger fans may forgive her shortcomings and love this.