Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
25th Oct 2010
Audrey Niffenegger‘s first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was an unequivocal smash hit. As ubiquitous in its time as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, for a few years it seemed that buses and trains were incomplete without a smattering of passengers with their eyes glued to it.
With her follow-up, Her Fearful Symmetry, the message seems to have been ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’ The design and palette of the book’s jacket establish an unmistakeable association with its predecessor and the story again combines a fantastical element with a focus on its emotional ramifications.
The book opens in north London’s Highgate Cemetery with the funeral of Elspeth, an antiquarian book-seller whose early death from leukaemia has left her lover Robert devastated. As the executor of her will, he discovers that she has left her entire estate to her American twin nieces, the daughters of her own estranged twin sister.
The twins come to live in her flat overlooking the cemetery, where they meet Robert as well as Martin, a crossword compiler whose increasingly overwhelming obsessive-compulsive disorder has driven his wife Marijke away. Besides these human encounters, they are also unwittingly sharing the flat with the ghost of Elspeth, who is observing them with interest and gradually learning to make herself manifest.
The plot, written down, looks a little contrived; unfortunately it doesn’t seem any less so when it’s encountered in the course of the book. The different characters are almost without exception completely unconvincing: the twins, Julia and Valentina, are described as physically inverted versions of each other who always dress identically and sleep together every night. Their personalities are correspondingly complementary and co-dependent. It’s all a little too perfect to feel properly human, and throughout the book it’s hard to shake the sense that everyone is fulfilling a literary plan rather than evolving organically.
The emotional line of the plot is concerned with relationships in different stages of rupture – Robert and Elspeth, Julia and Valentina, Martin and Marijke – and it’s in the descriptions of these emotions that Niffenegger shows flashes of the touch which made The Time Traveler’s Wife so successful; her prose is a pleasure to read and it’s easy to pick out moments of delicious insight. But the book’s virtues are ultimately submerged by the characters’ inability to develop into rounded individuals beyond their singular defining traits.
The setting of the book in and around Highgate is emblematic of its problems; the environment has been meticulously and accurately researched but that research jumps a little too obviously from every page with the scrupulous naming of places and descriptions of specific streets. It feels like an annotated Google Map rather than lived experience.
The plot seems equally airless and schematic and, as it progresses and the supernatural elements come more strongly to the fore, the lack of the sense of a real human core makes it harder and harder to care what happens. The fluidity of the writing means it’s never a chore to read but the feeling that the book has nothing to say beyond itself makes Her Fearful Symmetry a huge disappointment.
Have we been too harsh? Her Fearful Symmetry is available for £3.99 if you want to judge for yourself.