Reviewing Her Fearful Symmetry immediately after The Lost Symbol is quite an eye-opening enterprise. While she might fall short of all she attempts, Audrey Niffenegger achieves everything that Brown attempted (and more), and she does so with finesse. She gives readers a compelling page-turner without contrived cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. She makes the incredible seem absolutely believable instead of entirely laughable. And, in fewer pages, Niffenegger makes characters come alive — even when they’re dead. Most importantly, her writing is clear and beautifully phrased. These assets mostly compensate for the novel’s conclusion, which unfortunately detracts from an otherwise enjoyable novel.
Her Fearful Symmetry begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who leaves her London apartment to Julia and Valentina, the young daughters of her twin sister. Julia and Valentina are twins themselves — mirror twins, in fact. As Niffenegger writes, “the marvel was most evident in X-rays: while Julia was organized in the usual way, Valentine was internally reversed. Her heart was on her right side, with all its ventricles and chambers inverted.” These ghostly twins, with their fine, white-blonde hair and ultra waif-like appearances, certainly appear to belong more to the next life than this one. These unearthly qualities will serve them well in London, since both a ghost and a cemetery will figure heavily in their new lives.
The apartment (not to mention a nice chunk of money) allows the two 20-year-olds to dedicate their time exploring both London and the inhabitants of their building. Over the course of their explorations, the twins come to know Highgate Cemetary, which borders their new home; Martin, a crossword creator afflicted with extreme OCD and unable to leave his apartment; Robert, Elspeth’s former lover now lost without her; and, oddly enough, Elspeth herself.
As the novel progresses, we watch as Julia and Valentina struggle to define themselves as individuals while coping with an inability to be apart. Their plight mirrors the past relationship between Edie (their mother) and Elspeth, which ended tragically; the reason for this estrangement has been kept hidden from the twins, although the revelation, when it comes, is less-than-revelatory. As Julia and Valentina struggle in the present, Elspeth, watching them from a limbo consisting solely of her former home, reflects upon her own twin-ness.
Niffenegger shines at bringing this motley collection of characters to life and using them to illustrate her ideas on identity and love. Had the novel done only this — allowed Julia and Valentina to learn from Robert, Martin, and the ghost of their aunt — things might have turned out differently. Unfortunately, it is her adeptness at creating such “knowable” characters that undoes the end of the novel, for when these characters do the utterly nonsensical without precedent, the novel’s twists and turns feel heavy and unnecessary.
In the final third of the novel, the plot veers strangely from its course. Without giving away a major spoiler, I’ll say only that the characters we have come to know behave in direct opposition to their nature — and what’s more, other characters go along for the ride. When one considers the extremes to which certain characters go, such actions make little sense, and the motivations provided aren’t any help. This situation might be bearable, were it not for what happens next. Unfortunately, instead of improving things, Niffenegger only muddles them further.
The conclusion, while offering one or two truly surprising twists, is both too complicated and too neat. Neither Valentina nor Elspeth rise above their twin-ness and ultimately fail as individuals. In the final third of the novel, their actions are difficult to understand and nearly impossible to sympathize with. In stark contrast, other characters find their lives tied up in neat little bows. These “neat” conclusions feel rushed and too obvious. In short, the conclusion, while presenting some interesting ideas, essentially undermines the story we have come to appreciate.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and, while Niffenegger doesn’t pull it all off, her attempt is an admirable one. Despite the ending, which might not sit right with most readers, Her Fearful Symmetry is an acceptable follow-up to The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Although it isn’t as successful as its predecessor, Her Fearful Symmetry is engaging and unsettling. While some readers won’t love it, all will have something to say about it.
Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.