Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffennegger

Reviewed by Rima Walker

For as long as thinking people have been around, they have thought at some time or another about what will happen to them after death. Those who are religious have the answers that satisfy them; others doubt, and still others believe that there is no such thing as an afterlife. So what does happen next if anything?

Niffenegger attempts to answer this in her latest quirky and thoroughly intriguing novel, a love story, a story of obsession, a story of the past affecting the present and the future, and most of all a ghost story set in a building right next door to a very famous cemetery in London, the Highgate, a setting she knows well since she serves as a guide there for part of the year. Just as her very successful novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, dealt with enduring love that lasts back and forth through time warps, this novel is also about love, but love of different kinds. This time love has to triumph or fail through changing relationships among the book’s characters and most of all through the indomitable spirit that must overcome death in order to keep love going. “I will love you forever” takes on a whole new meaning here.

The plot concerns two sets of twins, Elspeth who lives in London and Edie her twin who lives in America and is married with twin girls, Julia and Valentina. When Elspeth dies of cancer at the age of 44, she leaves her flat next to the cemetery and some of her belongings to her twin nieces, stipulating that they must live in the apartment for a year in order to inherit and never allow their parents to set foot in it. She also leaves her diaries to Robert, her young lover who lives in the flat below hers and who is in such deep mourning that he can’t bring himself to read them.

The twins, Valentina and Julia, take center stage when they move into the flat. Valentina is the softer of the two, likely to give in to whatever Julia’s agenda is. Although Valentina loves her sister very much, she longs to be out from under her thumb. Julia, meanwhile, sees herself and Valentina forever together. But Valentina begins to pull away from her when she starts seeing Robert, the grieving lover of their Aunt Elspeth, and Julia is often left to her own devices. Crucial to this mix is the indomitable spirit of Elspeth whose ghost haunts the apartment. She involves herself heavily in the lives of those she left behind, hoping to still get what she wanted most in life. As foil to the situations of all of these characters is a couple who live on the top floor of the building, Martin and Marejke. He suffers from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and his wife leaves him to go back to Holland. His obsessions parallel the obsessions of the twins, Robert, and Elspeth.

So we are faced with what people will do for love, love between the twins, Elspeth’s love for Robert, Robert’s love for Elspeth and later for Valentina, and Martin’s and his wife’s love for each other. By the novel’s end, the mysteries are untangled with shocking information Robert discovers when he finally reads the diary. Why did Elspeth leave her flat to the twins? Why does she forbid the twins’ parents from entering the flat? Does Elspeth get what she wants? Do Julia, Valentina, and Robert get what they want? Does love conquer all? This is a ghost story but unlike any other you’ve ever read, definitely not the stuff of nightmares, and Niffengger’s luminous prose moves you swiftly to the finale. Fiction often is stranger than life and not all ghosts are malevolent. Right? ~

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