A bold and daring second offering from Niffeneger, but a close contender for her earlier work? Perhaps not for this reader.
Myfirst reaction to this novel was a little mixed, while I loved the plot line and exciting mystery that preceded much of the story, at times I found it hard to relate or sympathize with Niffenegger’s characters. Characters that are often extremely selfish and at times even unlikeable. Thankfully though Nifenegger’s winning plot line alongside the thrilling twists and turns that she throws into the mix save this novel and help to create a gripping read with an unusual and unique gothic twist.
The story centers around mirror twins Julia and Valentia, whose estranged aunt Elsphet passes away leaving the twins her home and a sizeable fortune of money. The twins, although having never met their aunt from London, are thrilled by the prospect of taking ownership of her home and gaining the independence that they have, living with their parents in America, thus far only dreamed of. What meets them in London though is a lot more than they or the reader could have possibly imagined. Over time they come to realize that their aunt Elspeth, who their mother has strangely tired to keep hidden from them, is a ghost now occupying her old flat, their new residence. Living in the flat with Aunt Elspeth’s ghost hovering in the shadows the twins begin to uncover mysteries and history that they had never anticipated. Alongside this journey they must also try and create lives for themselves and contend with the reality that one twin wants independence whilst the other wants to remain part of a set.
Woven within the story is also the character of Robert who was Elspeth’s lover and stayed with her through her illness until her death. Robert finds himself dragged into Elspeth’s past through the relationship he forges with the twins. Despite trying to move on Robert instead develops a close bond with Valentina but also struggles to come to terms with Elspeth’s death especially when he realises that she may have passed away but she is still very much able to communicate with him.
On top of all of these complicated events there is Martin, a man with severe OCD who is unable to leave his home. Martin is living in the same building as Robert and the twins. Martin becomes a confidant for twin Julia’s frustrations, he also becomes an interesting and intriguing character to read about as he struggles to come to terms with his OCD.
Niffenegger displays a wonderful imagination and the ability to build and maintain suspense and interest within her novel. The dark, often gothic twists to her tale heighten the eerie and ominous mood that is needed in this story where characters lack empathetic depiction. Instead the unusual and dark atmosphere contained within the novel becomes the fuel that drives the reader in this thrilling tale and the key to ensuring that their interest is sustained.
What Her Fearful Symmetry does really well is to examine and explore the ideas of possession, love and the idea of letting go. Each of the central characters struggle in some way to let go of their fixations and become driven instead by the need to posses something despite the dangerous consequences forewarned. Whether it be Julia’s reluctance to let go of Valentina, the twin who cannot accept that her sister is independent and her own person. Or in Elspeth in whom these themes are also perfectly presented. Despite passing away her soul can not let go and she haunts her own flat and the twins. Elspeth displays her possessive love for Martin as she desperately tries to communicate with him on the other side. We see just how far her love but also her desperation to be alive and with him again will drive her. She appears to lose herself morally in her bid for life and love and these emotions reach a dramatic climax towards the end of the novel when Niffeneger displays just how far people consumed with a passion to consume will go.
Even Martin struggles with the idea of letting go in the form of his OCD and agoraphobia and inability to leave his home. Off course Martin’s story is less dark and twisted as the other, although no less touching, but I’ll touch upon this more later.
As I have said the relationship between Julia and Valentina channels this theme of possession and letting go perfectly. Valentina, smothered and over powered by the constricting and overprotective love of her sister desperately seeks independence and freedom. But in Niffeneger’s tale, where nothing is impossible and the unimaginable is brought to life, the results of such controlling behavior are magnified and displayed in a new and exciting way. It was these ideas and themes demonstrated within the novel that really set it apart from other stories of it’s kind and helped to seal this novel within my mind. Niffeneger takes ideas that other writers have perhaps meekly explored in comparison to the dark and eerie way that she explores them. She’s certainly put her stamp on this plot and the effect of what she creates is fascinating to read.
Yet as much as I did love the story, as I have said I also struggled with most of the characters in the story, who to me were at times unattractive in their actions and behavior. Both twins display uncomfortable levels of selfishness in either their bid to break away from one another or alternatively entrap the other. As I’ve said what Niffenger does here is to magnify these ideas which is perhaps why I sometimes found the characters so off putting. Nothing is done by half measures, least of all the extreme that her characters will go to in order to meet their ideals. Elspeth also made for me a deeply unlikeable character. Her selfishness in obtaining mortality and regaining her former love over shadowed her moral compass on a grand scale and left me viewing her as quite a hollow person. I desperately sought a level on which I could relate to her and maybe understand her further but Niffeneger doesn’t really seem to offer this insight, it’s more just accepted that this is the way she is. Or perhaps we are meant to relate to her extreme actions and sympathize with her desperation. I could not make the connection though with her character and it did sometimes hinder the overall the connection I had with the novel.
Strangely I also found the way that Julia was criticized in the novel sometimes irritating, off course she is the over bearing twin and does have a lot to answer for when it comes to the demise of Valentia. But her motives seem to be out of love for her sister, albeit an overbearing love, and this therefore allowed me to feel more compassion towards her. The other characters seemed to act out of motives that only benefited themselves.
The redeeming character of the novel for me though really was Martin, I found his story compelling, fascinating and beautifully depicted. He doesn’t exactly provide light relief, his story is still a sad one but it isn’t hard to warm to him and feel empathy to his plight. In the midst of all of the madness that takes place in the story, Martin, trapped in his own apartment out of agoraphobia, is actually an enjoyable character to visit.
Please don’t be put of though by what I have said about Niffeneger’s characterization, it didn’t put me off the book and I don’t think it will alienate many readers either. If anything I think the way Niffeneger has presented her characters is a bold move and commendable. To take a mostly unlikeable group of people, and without apologizing for it allowing them to act in selfish and sometimes unforgivable ways in order to really push home a theme is to be respected and revered. Niffeneger’s message is all the more poignant for her daring.
What we end up with here is a dark story that by the end leaves the reader reflecting the lengths that people will go to procure what they truly desire. The fact that she has done this with such a gothic back drop only heightens the atmosphere in the story and emphasizes the possibilities a fixation with possession can create. And because this story is fundamentally centered around the relationship of two sets of twins we can also see quite tragically the ramifications of jealousy and possession on such special relationships.