Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger's novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, is an entertaining page-turner of a pop-literary ghost story.  Think of Mrs. Henry Wood, author of East Lynne, with a dash of Wilkie Collins, Edith Wharton, and Henry James thrown in. Part junk, part good writing.  And although Her Fearful Symmetry is set in the 21st century, its Victorian ambiance quickly hooked me. Yet it's also eerily contemporary urban, a shadowy mix of Susanna Moore's shocking realism with Holly Black's SF grittiness.  It is set in Highgate Cemetery and its neighborhood in London.

I never read The Time Traveler's Wife.  A romance?  Not my kind of thing. Plus I suspected it was science fiction, and I prefer the science fiction that ends up in the science fiction section.

But well-done pop can be more rewarding than badly-done literary, and this isn't crap.  It's reasonably well-written, very well-plotted.  The story line explodes  the twisted stratagems of a sick mind, so I'll briefly synopsize  and get out of here.

The novel commences in Highgate Cemetery, a London cemetery famous for its Victoriana and Gothic tombs and mausoleums, where Karl Marx, Mrs. Henry Wood, George Eliot, John Galsworthy, and Stella Gibbons are buried.  Robert, one of the main characters, is a middle-aged, stuck-on-his-dissertation cemetery guide who is mourning his girlfriend Elspeth's death. The two of them had lived a rather dark bohemian life in separate apartments in a dark house on the edge of the cemetery.  Elspeth, an elaborate manipulator, bequeaths her apartment to twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, with a codicil that their parents can't set foot in the apartment.  And we learn that Elspeth herself was a twin, estranged from her twin sister Edie, the mother of the twins, in Chicago.

Confusing?  Yes, a bit.

When the twins move to London, there are problems.  Julia is the outgoing twin, Valentina the quiet, passive one.  Valentina wants her own life.  They are mirror-image twins, meaning that they have reverse symmetrical features.  Valentina and Robert begin to date, because she reminds him of a young Elspeth.  And the story develops from there.

Elspeth is now a ghost, stuck in her apartment.  She longs to know everything about the twins' life.  Eventually she engages Valentina in long hours of Ouija and automatic writing and seduces her from her real life into real danger. It's horrifying but nevertheless most of the characters have a strict moral code.  Otherwise I couldn't have continued.

All the characters are fascinating, and I very much enjoyed this.  A great, short weekend read.  Enjoy.

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