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Book: Her Fearful Symmetry

June 11, 2010

Two sets of twins. Two ghosts. Two men. London. Highgate Cemetery. A mystery. A plan (or two) gone wrong. Secrets. The folly of finally getting what you wished for.

This was such a good book. However, I am left feeling undecided about my final opinion.

I loved the first half. Twins Valentina and Julia Noblin inherit their aunt’s (their mother’s long-estranged twin sister) apartment and estate in London, with the stipulation that they must live in the apartment for one year, and that their parents must never enter the apartment. The twins (who are mirror twins, meaning that each is the mirror image of the other — one’s heart is flipped, they have a mole in the exact same place on either the right or left cheek, etc.) are of course thrilled. They do absolutely everything together and even still dress alike. They set off on this new adventure of twindom with high hopes and no real plans.

Once they get to London, they enjoy taking day trips to explore. They get to (slowly) know their neighbors. Martin, upstairs, who has severe OCD. Robert, downstairs, her aunt’s much-younger lover, and keeper of her diaries. They explore the cemetery, in which they are graveowners (their aunt is buried there). They adopt a kitten.

And yet things are not all right. Robert grieves terribly for Elspeth (the aunt), and yet is drawn to Valentina. Valentina desperately wants to get away from her twin, Julia, who insists on keeping Valentina closer than ever. Martin’s wife cannot live with his OCD any longer and leaves him. And Elspeth, the aunt, is a ghost.

The parts where Elspeth discovers how to haunt, how to affect the real world (moving objects, writing in the dust, etc.) was fascinating and almost gleeful. Elspeth cannot leave her flat, and so she haunts the twins. Nothing scary… just cool ghostly touches, curtains moving, and finally, some words written in the dust. And that’s when the twins and Robert become aware of her.

After that, although I enjoyed the story, things get a little weird. Elspeth the ghost becomes another character in the set. She is not a mystery at all. She interacts with her nieces and Robert daily. She wants things. She wants to know things. She clearly does not want to be dead at all.

Valentina, on the other hand, seems to be retreating. She pulls away from Julia. She is afraid to let Robert get close. She is weak and frail, and cannot manage life on her own, although she longs to. She wishes she could just get away.

In the end, everyone gets what they want (mostly), but it’s not particularly happy in each case. Like the cracked and jagged branches of the cover of this book, things go wrong, wishes are fulfilled that should not have been fulfilled, secrets are broken open anticlimactically, the path is twisty-turny and somehow deeply unsettling.

I think that I felt like the first half of the book was one way, and the second half, although deeply interesting, felt like too much happening all at once, and nothing going to the way you thought or wished it would. Which I suppose is the point. One of the things I liked about Niffenegger’s other book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was how real she made the time-traveling feel. Troublesome and dangerous and scary and real. The same applies here. How it feels to be a ghost, how it feels to be a stifled twin, how it feels to have a heavy secret, how it feels to be betrayed, how it feels to realize too late what you’ve done.

I also found it to be almost unbearably sad in ways. It left me feeling unsettled, and I did not expect that.

So. I really really enjoyed it, but have mixed feelings after finishing it. However, now I totally want to go see Highgate Cemetery. Also, a very good review from the New York Times, which touches on the obsession theme which I didn’t get into here.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2010 9:45 am

    oh i so want to read this book.

    i may have to buy this one. i try not to buy them unless i know jay will read it too (because then we are getting our monies worth.) he loved Time Travelers Wife and i think hed read this one. he likes to be moved to feel something by a book.

  2. June 11, 2010 9:47 am

    She is a brilliant and talented writer, to be sure, and this book proves that Time Traveler’s Wife was not a one hit wonder. However, I had a similar experience to yours. I loved the first half of the book and hated the way everything unraveled with the characters, with the exception of Martin, whose end was satisfying but way too rushed. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read it. I actually posted two reviews for this book, a non-spoiler review and a more detailed spoiler review just because I felt compelled to talk about the things that I didn’t like. Here is the link if you are interested:

  3. June 11, 2010 11:04 am

    Tammie: yes! You should read it. I want to talk about it with you. Jay might like it too.

    Carl: I will definitely come have a chat about it. That’s a good idea — a spoiler and non-spoiler review. There were a lot of things I would have liked to mention, and certain parts that I really had a hard (emotional, visceral) time with that I wanted to talk about, but it would spoil the book! I’ll come read the discussion when I get a minute… And yes, Martin’s ending was just right, although rushed.

  4. June 11, 2010 12:46 pm

    I’ve seen so many mixed reviews of this! I wonder on which camp I’ll fall. Only one way to find out, right? Also, thank you for bringing up how sad it is. I think I’ll be glad to go in expecting that.

  5. June 11, 2010 12:48 pm

    ana: I’m not sure if everyone found it sad… I did, but mostly because of this one part. I think you might find that one part sad as well. Over all, the ending was sad, but not heart-ripping sad. Just melancholy. STILL — definitley read it! I think you will like it.

  6. June 11, 2010 1:42 pm

    James read this one and a couple other people I know read it and they all said it starts off well but they hated it after halfway so I decided not to read it.

  7. June 11, 2010 1:43 pm

    Hmm. I wouldn’t say I hated it in the second half, and it still makes my “you should read it list,” but it is disturbing. And very thought-provoking. Not comfortable, but really good.

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