Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) – Audrey NIFFENEGGER

I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife. Truly, it is one of the best science fiction novels of the past ten years, and definitely one of the greatest love stories ever told. And told beautifully, mind, with Niffenegger perfectly managing the logic of time travel. So I’ve been hanging out for this book for a long time, thanks to the promise shown in her first novel.

As she dies, Elspeth Noblin makes one last request – her twin nieces are to inherit her London flat, on condition they live there for one year, by themselves. Julia and Valentine are reluctant at first – particularly since their parents don’t want them to go – but go they do, and meet Robert, Elspeth’s widower. Robert, along with the staff of Highgate Cemetary and the twins themselves, are slowly drawn into one woman’s quest to remain alive long after she has died.

This novel is very, very odd.The characters are odd – Robert can’t let go of his dead wife (which is fine, but the way he does this is unusual), the neighbours in the apartment block are weird (one is an agoraphobic OCD man whose wife has just left him), and the twins – Julia and Valentine – are just plain nuts. There’s so much weird, it’s hard to sympathise with any of them – they are almost weird to the point of stupidity. Personally, I thought Martin, the OCD man, was the best character, and his obsession with cleanliness, and the repercussions this has on his relationship with his wife and son are actually quite poignant. His side story has very little to do with the main plot, but actually, I quite liked it. Almost more than the rest of what was going on.

The other characters, however, are less likeable. All of them have their own obsessions and quirks, but instead of making them poignant, they become pitiable – and not in a good way. You kind of don’t want to read about these people, because you know that they will never do what they should do – and they’re a little bit creepy. One reviewer says of the twins: “they are so inseparable that they are rendered infantile to the point of idiocy”, and I would argue that this extends to the other main characters as well. They are so incapable of acting outside their self-imposed parameters, sometimes you just want to scream at them, and tell them to harden up. Though maybe that’s just me…

Julia and Valentine, the central characters of the book, are so stereotypically twinnish, it’s hard to take them seriously. There’s the bossy twin (Julia), and the shy, retiring wallflower twin (Valentine), and yet neither of them can function without the other. Julia actually comes off so bossy as to be almost unlikable, and Valentine is just so passive, you kind of want to shake her out of her self-induced stupor.

I’m going to talk about the ending, because it frustrated me so – so you’ve been warned if you don’t want to spoil the novel. Elspeth actually turns into a ghost, and can eventually communicate with the twins. This is fine, I suppose. But what rapidly becomes ridiculous is the fact that Valentine suddenly decides she’s suicidal, and is happy to kill herself so that Elspeth’s soul can enter her body. I know – it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

What makes this ending even more off-putting is twofold. First of all, while Valentine is arguably the main character, there is almost no indication throughout the rest of the novel that she is suicidal. Then she tops herself. Second, Elspeth is so desperate to get back with her husband, she’s willing to kill her own daughter (yes, it turns out the twins were actually hers all along), and use her body for the rest of its life. The book rapidly descends into madness and stupidity, and nothing can save it. There’s just so little point to what is going on, you really don’t care that all these people are dying and switching bodies and all that jazz. It pushes well past the point of magical realism, and eventually turns into straight up fantasy. Which is fine,but there aren’t really any warnings about ghosts being actual things until we start meeting them left, right, and centre.

I suspect I’m more disappointed with this book because I’m such a big fan of Niffenegger’s first novel. Having said that, there are some serious structural and character flaws with this novel. If she could have picked just Martin’s story, for example, I think it would have turned out well. Unfortunately, the magical realism path she has chosen to go down means the novel suffers as a result.

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