Her Fearful Symmetry
Scribner: 406 pp., $26.99
Chicagoan Audrey Niffenegger, author of the blockbuster "The Time Traveler's Wife" (recently made into a movie), spends time each year in London, where she is a guide at the historic Highgate Cemetery. Its roster of famous remains includes those of Karl Marx, and though the author of "The Communist Manifesto" does not cast much of a shadow over Niffenegger's new novel, "Her Fearful Symmetry," there is indeed a new specter haunting (that part of) Europe: Elspeth Noblin.
A recently deceased rare book dealer, Elspeth not only has a family crypt in the cemetery but also had lived in an apartment overlooking it, complete with private entrance and special key. Elspeth has left her home and all it entails to her twin nieces from Chicago, Julia and Valentina, daughters of her own identical twin, Edie, but Elspeth's presence -- and a lot more -- still lingers there.
Readers of Niffenegger's previous novel will not be surprised to find an element of the supernatural here. At first Elspeth is merely an observer as the twins adjust to their new environment, but gradually she or, more to the point, the author finds a way for her to communicate with them and with their downstairs neighbor Robert, a younger man formerly Elspeth's lover. Although ingenious, the way this dubious process takes place seems a little too convenient, taking just enough account of some physical reality while otherwise operating on a metaphysical plane. As in "The Time Traveler's Wife," Niffenegger tends to pussyfoot around larger philosophical issues.
Fortunately, though, there's plenty happening on more mundane levels, and if all the present-day shenanigans are not enough, there's a complicated story from a couple of decades back to haunt the Noblin clan. Niffenegger piles on plenty of action, from bed-hopping to that old Elizabethan device beloved of Shakespeare, the bed-trick, and it all serves to hold the reader's attention. Even the revelations near the book's end are a genuine surprise and not in the least shopworn. In fact, "Her Fearful Symmetry" does not so much recall William Blake's poetry, which provides its title, but rather the intro to that '60s television classic "Ben Casey": Man, woman, birth, death, infinity.
Oddly enough, considering the author's predilection for the supernatural, it is the realistic aspects of the novel that are most interesting. Elspeth's death from leukemia -- her actual shuffling off of the mortal coil rather than her assumption of ghost status -- is moving, as is Robert's surprising immediate reaction to it. A subplot involving another tenant who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder is intricate and fascinating, especially because of Niffenegger's ability to get inside his head. His wife's predicament is also sensitively explored, and she is one of the few really attractive people in the novel -- its major fault being a collection of some of the least nice or pleasant characters I have ever encountered in fiction. Unfortunately, despite her premature death, Elspeth is perhaps the least sympathetic of all: all but insufferable in life and death.
There is something very self-indulgent about this book: At times you feel that the author wrote it for herself rather than for her readers, an uncommon feeling when reading fiction. There are passages in the novel in Dutch, not always translated, which to me smacks of an arrogance worthy of Elspeth at her most infuriating.
Niffenegger is especially good on the subject of twins, something organic to the novel since there are two sets of them at its heart. Elspeth and Edie are uncannily alike; Julia and Valentina also resemble each other but have quite different personalities. They are "mirror image" twins to a remarkable extent; not only is a mole on the one reversed on the other, but also in one the vital organs, including the heart, are misplaced to the right, with the realistic consequence that she is much more fragile physically. On this topic, Niffenegger deftly plumbs the depths of her subject, showing a profound and imaginative understanding. If only this touch had been used throughout.