Monday, 18 January 2010

CBR 19: "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger

Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
Page count: 400 pages
Date begun: January 6th, 2010
Date finished: January 9th, 2010

When Elpeth Noblin dies, she leaves her London flat and most of her possessions to her twin nieces, daughters of her twin sister Edie. Julia and Valentina inherit on their 21st birthday, on the condition that they live in the flat for at least one year, and they never let their parents set foot in it. There is obviously some bad blood between the eldest pair of twins, an event in their past caused their long estrangement. Julia and Valentina are inseparable (somewhat to the annoyance of Valentina) and while puzzled by the bequest, they decide to move to London for a year.

Once they move into the flat, located on the edge of the historic Highgate cemetery, they eventually meet Elspeth's two neighbours. In the flat above theirs lives the reclusive yet charming Martin, a crossword compiler who suffers from OCD so bad his wife has left him and moved to Amsterdam. In the flat below theirs lives Robert, Elspeth's grieving lover, a PHD-candidate who also works as a guide at the cemetery. Elspeth herself is also a significant character in the novel, who we get to know partially through flashbacks, but mostly because after her death she haunts the flat where she lived, trying to make contact with the living by making light bulbs flash and the like.

Her Fearful Symmetry is Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, the follow-up to her hugely successful debut The Time-Traveler's Wife (which I absolutely adored and included in my best of the decade list). So I obviously had some expectations. Niffenegger creates fascinating characters, richly drawn and with many layers. She very deftly describes the bond between the two sets of twins, and makes the reader understand both why one twin seems to always want to stay close to her sister, yet the other longs for freedom and independence. However, in the final third or so of the book, the story takes a direction I distinctly disliked. It is to Niffenegger's credit as a writer that I still felt compelled to finish the book, even when it took a completely unexpected turn and became something entirely different from what I had expected. I did not think it worked, but will allow others to make up their minds for themselves as to whether they think the story came to a satisfying end.

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