Audrey Niffenegger, who has recently become known for her work “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” has triumphed again with her latest novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry.”
Set in London, Highgate Cemetery to be exact, Niffenegger weaves connections between sisters, strangers and even ghosts. The novel revolves around the relationships between two sets of twins, a bond that is often thought of as one of the strongest and unbreakable.
However, when Niffenegger reveals how these deep-seated bonds can be overturned, we are left to question every other relationship in the novel: if such a strong bond can be jilted, what are we to expect from other relationships? While this novel appears to be about symmetry and pairs, it is actually a story about finding individuality amidst the confusing, and often dangerous, boundaries of familial, friendly, and even erotic, relationships.
The two American twins at the heart of this novel, Valentina and Julia, move into a flat given to them by their recently departed Aunt Elspeth (their mother’s estranged twin sister). The news of an estranged aunt and a fresh start in a new country come as quite a surprise and opportunity to the twins who are lacking a sense of direction. After dropping out of multiple colleges, the twins move into the flat where they become stuck in a state of stasis and uncertainty.
From the beginning, the difference between the twins becomes clear. While Julia is excited to move to London and learn about their departed aunt through living in her flat, Valentina is hesitant, desiring rather to return to college to pursue her dream of fashion design. In the end, Valentina’s need to be close to her twin wins out, and she agrees to move to London with Julia. Along with the move into the flat though, there are some conditions: The twins must live in the flat for at least one year before selling it, and their parents are not allowed to enter the apartment at all.
Clearly, Niffenegger is hinting at some sort of familial disconnect between the departed aunt and her twin, the girls’ mother, but the surprising event that causes it is not revealed until much later in the novel. With these restrictions in mind, the twins move into their aunt’s flat bordering Highgate Cemetery, where they soon find more than expected.
As expected when you hear that the flat is on the border of a cemetery, it isn’t exactly a normal living situation. While the flat itself is beautiful and full of antiques and priceless books, the inhabitants of the building are not quite so normal.
In the downstairs flat is Robert, Elspeth’s former lover, who establishes a voyeuristic and quite eerie relationship with the twins. His voyeurism leads him to eventually begin a romantic relationship with Valentina, a girl much younger than him, seeing traits in her that he misses so desperately from his beloved Elspeth.
In the upstairs flat is Martin, a man who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and agoraphobia. Martin is trying to piece his life together after his wife finally cannot take the circumstances of his diseases any more and leaves him and moves to her native country, Holland. Julia, driven by curiosity, develops a relationship with Martin while she is left more and more to her own devices while Valentina spends more time with Robert.
Finally, and most importantly, the most unique inhabitant of the building is the spirit of the twins’ Aunt Elspeth, which is trapped inside her flat. While these relationships grow and develop, Niffenegger creates new bonds while others become weaker, forcing the reader to question the normal perceptions of what constitutes a strong relationship. By the end of the novel, the only character who has a clear sense of direction is the ghost of Elspeth, throwing the other characters into a confusing search for identity and purpose that will surprise and confuse the reader up until the very end.
While “Her Fearful Symmetry” appears to be a novel about pairing and symmetry, it is actually about how twisted our perceptions of the concepts of sisterhood, love and death actually are. Although there are still the familiar elements of love, coming of age and family, Niffenegger artfully presents them in ways that turn them on their heads, transforming this novel from a simple ghost story and into a statement on forging an identity that is actually quite extraordinary.