Although quite different from The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I found surprisingly moving, Her Fearful Symmetry is a strong novel on its own. The book is mystical (it deals with ghosts and physically symmetrical twins) but never ridiculous. As in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger is not careless with her supernatural themes. She develops them slowly and cleverly, drawing you into her spooky and enchanted world–one to which you very much look forward to returning. The author has crafted an island of secret emotional passions amid the huge London metropolis, letting you peek into the strange lives (and after-lives) of each inhabitant of a single apartment building.
There aren’t many great quotations to be extracted from the text and reproduced here in a display of the writer’s elegant prose. The novel’s elegance lies more in the flow and atmosphere Niffenegger creates throughout. Having said this, there are some funny lines that prove Niffenegger is capable of not taking herself too seriously. For example, “It was an anxious day for everyone: humans, cats, and ghosts” (200). Niffenegger’s humor adds much to an otherwise somber look into the lives of this book’s characters. In a tense moment in the novel, she writes:
“He gave himself over to her feet, feeling that he had achieved a new level of debauchery, giving a foot massage to a young girl in public. I wonder if they arrest people for this?” (213)
Witty humor aside, the novel’s greatest strength is the ability to engross you in its gripping other-worldliness. Set in a London flat overlooking the famous Highgate Cemetery (George Elliot and Radclyffe Hall are buried there), the book focuses on twin sisters Elspeth and Edwina, who have not spoken for many years. The novel begins on the deathbed of Elspeth, who bequeaths her estate, including her London flat, to the daughters of her estranged twin sister, who also happen to be twins. Taking ghosts somewhat as a matter of course, the novel continues to revolve around Elspeth even after her death, successfully interweaving very real places with whimsical spiritual mysticism.
I am grateful for the 2009 New York Times book review for pointing out a somewhat hidden double-entendre in the novel’s title: “Put on a plummy British accent to pronounce ‘symmetry’ and ‘cemetery’ and discover a pun in the title.” This pun would have completely eluded me otherwise.
Her Fearful Symmetry is a fascinating analysis of the twin dynamic disguised as a popular novel. It is certainly entertaining (as best-sellers must be) but it is also well-written and thought-provoking. I recommend.