Dark love story multiplied by two
Lovers of Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife’’ may be surprised by her new novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry.’’ Set near and within London’s Highgate cemetery, this book is a dark love story with ghosts and identical twins. Unless you count the ghost, the closest this new novel comes to time jumping is the phrase, “The End,’’ which is the title of the first chapter.
There are two sets of identical twins, separated by geography, a generation, and a secret. The novel’s central characters are 20-year-old American twins, Julia and Valentina. Their English-born mother, Edie, is also a twin; she and her husband, Jack, moved to Chicago when they married, leaving behind Edie’s sister, Elspeth. Now Elspeth has died - hence title of the first chapter - and Julia and Valentina have inherited their aunt’s London flat near Highgate.
At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Edie and Elspeth have been estranged for 21 years, but Elspeth says that hating Edie would be like “hating myself.’’ Julia and Valentina, beautiful yet “peculiar’’ looking girls with white-blonde hair, are in some ways mirror images of one another. Julia, who is older by 6 minutes, is dominant and healthy; Valentina suffers from asthma, and her nickname, “mouse,’’ sums her up. The girls are effectively chained by their love, but Valentina is seeking an opportunity to cut herself free.
That chance comes in London, along with the dark love story. Elspeth has also left behind her younger lover, Robert, a graduate student who lives in the first floor flat. Robert mourns for Elsbeth, lying in her bed and hanging out at her tomb like a character out of Edgar Allan Poe. When the girls move in, Robert ducks their overtures but follows them around London. The building’s third flat is occupied by Martin, an agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive hoarder, who has covered his windows with newspapers. His wife, Marijke, loves him but not his compulsions and has returned to Amsterdam. Julia and Martin become friends; she slips him antidepressants because he is “crazy’’ in a “nice eccentric English way.’’
The reader is unsurprised when Elspeth very soon reappears to live a ghost’s life in her old flat. She puts herself through ghost training, testing her abilities and developing a fitness routine. From giving people the chills and shorting out the television, she progresses to turning on lights and closing doors.
Readers captivated by Henry’s helpless time-jumping in Niffenegger’s previous novel may be less captivated by the final secret in this novel, although its complexity is reminiscent of the expert plotting of “The Time Traveler’s Wife.’’ But those who favor tales of ghosts, strange twins, and dark love affairs will find that this is their book.
Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College