From the Publisher
"The endurance of love animates this gothic story set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London. Niffenegger's prose can be wearyingly overblown, but she has a knack for taking the romantic into the realm of creepiness, and she constructs a taut mystery around the secrets... It's no small achievement that the revelations are both organic and completely unexpected." -- The New Yorker
"Bewitching...Lovers of Niffenegger's past work should rejoice... Her Fearful Symmetry is as atmospheric and beguiling as a walk through Highgate itself." -- Susann Cokal, New York Times Book Review (front page)
"Frighteningly smart... Millions of readers who enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife ... will find a similar theme in Her Fearful Symmetry: romance that transgresses all natural barriers.... Deliciously creepy." -- Ron Charles, Washington Post
"A compelling modern-day ghost story set in and around London's atmospheric Highgate cemetery...An engrossing love story that crosses to the 'other side,' Symmetry offers an inventive take on sibling rivalry, personal identity and what it's like to be dead." -- People (3 1/2 stars)
"Niffenegger piles on plenty of action... The book's end [is] a genuine surprise... Elspeth's death ... is moving, as is Robert's surprising immediate reaction to it... [Martin] is intricate and fascinating, especially because of Niffenegger's ability to get inside his head.... Niffenegger is especially good on the subject of twins... [She] deftly plumbs the depths of her subject, showing a profound and imaginative understanding." -- Martin Rubin, Los Angeles Times
"[A] gravely buoyant new novel of phantom loves and all-too-tangible fears." -- O, the Oprah magazine
"Niffenegger is an extraordinarily sensitive and accomplished writer, and Her Fearful Symmetry is a work of lovely delicacy." -- Lev Grossman, Time
"Following up a phenomenal blockbuster is not easy, but Niffenegger rises to the task with Her Fearful Symmetry. Fans will find plenty of rewards in her clever ... [and] unique modern ghost story... Her descriptions transport the reader directly into a moody Victorian landscape of beauty and death... Mesmerizing... A deeply moving story filled with unforgettable characters... A beautiful testament to Niffenegger's fertile imagination and love of storytelling." -- Mary Houlihan, Chicago Sun-Times
"An intriguing look at kinship and the danger of getting what you wished for." -- Good Housekeeping
"Entertaining... The reader is pleasantly carried along by the author's ability to create credible characters and her instinctive narrative gifts." -- Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
Like its predecessor, The Time Traveler's Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry has a plot both vividly original and yet evocative of time-etched genres; in this case, the neo-gothic. The story involves Julia and Valentina, seemingly typical American teens who have inherited their aunt's London flat. The apartment, as it happens, sits beside Highgate Cemetery, a shadowy burial place that possesses a presence of its own. To this strange mix, Niffenegger adds a medley of neighbors with whole battalions of obsessions and other disorders. The plot is engulfing, the characters unforgettable.
…bewitching…Lovers of Niffenegger's past work should rejoice. This outing may not be as blindly romantic as The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it is mature, complex and convincinga dreamy yet visceral tale of loves both familial and erotic, a search for Self in the midst of obsession with an Other. Her Fearful Symmetry is as atmospheric and beguiling as a walk through Highgate itself.
The New York Times
Niffenegger slowly draws out the relationship between the indolent young twins in a strange dance that's alternately charming and sinister…Their sisterly devotion sounds sweet until it seems suffocating, with a touch of incestuous frisson that would leave Edgar Allan Poe queasy…keep the children away and dust off the Ouija board; you're about to make contact with something deliciously creepy.
The Washington Post
Niffenegger follows up her spectacular The Time Traveler's Wife with a beautifully written if incoherent ghost story. When Elspeth Noblin dies, she leaves everything to the 20-year-old American twin daughters of her own long-estranged twin, Edie. Valentina and Julia, as enmeshed as Elspeth and Edie once were, move into Elspeth's London flat bordering Highgate Cemetery in a building occupied by Elspeth's lover, Robert, and the novel's most interesting character, Martin, whose wife is long suffering due to his crushing and beautifully portrayed OCD. The girls are pallid and incurious; they wander around London and spend time with Robert and Martin and Elspeth's ghost. Valentina's developing relationship with Robert arouses mild jealousy, and when Valentina pursues her interest in fashion design, Julia disapproves, which leads Valentina and Elspeth to concoct an extreme plan to allow Valentina to lead her own life. The plan, unsurprisingly, goes awry, followed by weakly foreshadowed and confusing twists that take the plot from dull to silly. While Niffenegger's gifted prose and past success will garner readers, the story is a disappointment. (Sept.)
Twin sisters inherit a London flat, and a bundle of baggage, from their mother's long-estranged twin. Elspeth has expired at 44 of cancer, leaving her younger lover and neighbor Robert bereft and obsessed with her memory. Robert is entrusted with her diaries and named executor of her will, which bequeaths her flat and substantial cash reserves to her 20-year-old twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. Elspeth's twin sister Edie and her husband Jack, a Chicago banker, receive nothing and are expressly forbidden to visit the flat. Presumably, Elspeth's hostility stems from the fact that, 20 years before, Edie had eloped with Jack, then Elspeth's fiance, and fled with him to Chicago. When the girls move to London, their own sibling rivalry escalates. Julia dominates minutes-younger Valentina, forcing her to share a life of indolence rather than pursue her ambition to be a fashion designer. Robert, a perennial doctorate candidate writing his thesis on the historic 19th-century cemetery Highgate, is intimately familiar with all manner of Victorian morbidity, including the extreme measures taken to avoid being buried alive. Robert introduces the twins to the all-volunteer staff of Highgate, where many luminaries, including Karl Marx and George Eliot, are buried. Valentina is drawn to Robert, who finds her resemblance to Elspeth uncanny, unnerving and ultimately irresistible. Julia befriends upstairs neighbor Martin, an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose wife, finally fed up with his draconian rituals, has just left him. Meanwhile, Elspeth has returned to her former flat, training her ghostly self to communicate with the occupants. Only Valentina can see her, and she enlists her aunt's aid ingetting free of Julia. The manner in which Elspeth accomplishes Valentina's liberation, and the mind-boggling double cross revealed in the diaries, are breathtakingly far-fetched. Gimmickry, supernatural and otherwise, blunts what could have been an incisive inquiry into the mysteries and frustrations of too-close kinship from the talented Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife, 2003, etc.).
Fortune's wheel is a harsh chastiser, and those lucky writers who have found heady success with their first books often come crashing down with the second, never to rise again. What's the cause? Do they succumb to nerves from external expectations? Do they secretly feel unworthy? Are our expectations as readers unreasonable? Have they merely been sport for the gods?
The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger's first book, was Cinderella at the ball -- a book that got published without a literary agent behind it, a popular success that was a critical one too. Its distinctive (and, I assume from Niffenegger's acknowledgments, long-steeped) flavor completely eluded the dumb movie made from it. Describing the novel as blending fantasy, science fiction, romance, mild philosophy, and epistolary traditions is technically accurate, but fails to capture its unusual charm: its balance of inevitability and suspense, the importance of conversations both humorous and tersely poignant, the cultural riffs and bookish background of Chicago in the '80s and '90s, the bubble of optimism that buoys it up even in the face of death and decay. It's a great read. Given the weight of expectations (and money) riding on her second book, the conditions were ripe for Niffenegger to dig her own grave. But it turns out that in her second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger gets her characters to do the grisly digging for themselves while she floats out smelling like a rose.
The book is mostly set in London, indeed mostly in, around, and even under Highgate Cemetery. Connoisseurs of graveyards will recognize it as the now lushly overgrown final resting place of Victorians eager to escape the horrors of urban burial where Dickens, among others, described dogs running off with the bones of the less recently departed. Famous inhabitants of Highgate include Karl Marx, George Eliot, and Lizzie Siddal, dug up seven years after her death by her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, when he had second thoughts about publishing those manuscript poems he'd romantically but rashly buried with her. (The story goes that her red-gold hair had continued to grow to fill the coffin, but the red-leather-covered manuscript was worm-holed, damp, and stained.)
The cemetery provides the ground against which twin American young women -- still really girls in much of their behavior and manner, naive and antiseptic -- come to determine the shape of their lives. Julia and Valentina have grown up in the Chicago suburbs. They have taken on some unimaginative generational protective coloration (on tv "President Bush was talking to Karl Rove.... The twins gave the finger to the president and his aide in unison"), but they are in fact rather odd. To begin with, they are physically distinctive -- pale and etiolated -- and there are two of them, identical but flipped: mirror-image twins. They usually dress identically and do the same things. They are striking, and yet somehow insubstantial. Their actions and opinions are curiously trivial. But, as the man said, the prospect of death concentrates the mind wonderfully. The twins first face death at a distance. An aunt, their mother's twin sister, whom they barely knew existed, has died and left them something: her flat, which not only overlooks Highgate Cemetery but is built into its walls. When they move there, death becomes closer.
Even unavoidable. Robert, one of their fellow tenants and their Aunt Elspeth's lover, should serve as an instructive example. He started off visiting the cemetery because he was writing a dissertation about Victorian funerary practices and ended up living next door to it, giving tours of the cemetery, and sneaking in at night. Robert has found that "he liked the cemetery itself much better than anything he wrote about it." That's saying something, because his draft is very long. Their other fellow tenant, Martin, is an obsessive-compulsive crossword-puzzle setter -- the cryptic kind, natch. He escapes the cemetery's influence by papering over his windows. Or does he? For surely he's managed to immure himself in a simulacrum of a crypt. In fact, all of them -- Martin, Julia, Valentina, and even the dead Elspeth -- share Robert's problem: "He began to take the cemetery personally and lost all perspective."
Niffenegger lures us into this sepulchral world, too. For the most part, she shapes her crepuscular atmosphere subtly, even down to using English spellings. As a child, I had a quite distinct sense of certain words when they were spelled the English way: "draught" (which I mispronounced) seemed hollower and more penetratingly chilly than "draft," "spectre" more haunting, and "grey" a wispy whisper of tint. Like the best ghost stories, Niffenegger's ghost story takes shape from evocative foggy patches, half-remembered phrases and twists of plot. It's not exactly deja vu all over again, but Her Fearful Symmetry is a very bookish ghost story. In fact, Elspeth, her ghost, learns a lot about post-life behavior via books -- Henry James, M. R. James, Noël Coward, and Gray's Anatomy.
The Victorians thrilled to ghost stories, creepy ones, of course, but even ultimately comic ones like Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Recently, in the last ten years or so, there seems to have been a resurgence of wonderful, and bookish, supernatural tales: A. S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and Neil Gaiman's Cemetery Book. These books seem to transcend the limitations of pastiche and genre to appeal to people who don't think of themselves as liking science fiction, fantasy, or ghost stories -- and that would include me. Audrey Niffenegger's book -- in which Gaiman appears in the lengthy acknowledgments -- is a worthy addition to these predecessors.
An additional note: Niffenegger has endowed Robert with an extensive admiration for a bunch of famous dead Victorians, but he disdains Mrs. Henry Wood, the author of sensational stories like her bestselling novel East Lynne. Robert might be a happier man today if he'd read her more seriously. The melodramatic East Lynne turns on adultery, disguise, and a dying child. But of the 30 or so novels Ellen Wood wrote, her own favorite was The Shadow of Ashlydyat, a ghost story in which supernatural phenomena are not explained away, and in which (most unusually for the moral Mrs. Wood, whose first novel won an award from a temperance society) an energetic and unscrupulous woman is left unchecked at the end. Both of these novels are still in print more than 100 years later. That's an afterlife to aspire to. --Alexandra Mullen
Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.
Read an Excerpt
Espeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head towards the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious. In
the seconds before she died, Elspeth remembered a day last spring when she and Robert had walked along a muddy path by the Thames in Kew Gardens. There was a smell of rotted leaves; it had been raining. Robert said, "We should have had kids," and Elspeth replied, "Don't be silly, sweet." She said it out loud, in the hospital room, but Robert wasn't there to hear.
Elspeth turned her face towards the door. She wanted to call out, Robert, but her throat was suddenly full. She felt as though her soul were attempting to climb out by way of her oesophagus. She tried to cough, to let it out, but she only gurgled. I'm drowning. Drowning in a bed...She felt intense pressure, and then she was floating; the pain was gone and she was looking down from the ceiling at her small wrecked body.
Robert stood in the doorway. The tea was scalding his hand, and he set it down on the nightstand by the bed. Dawn had begun to change the shadows in the room from charcoal to an indeterminate grey; otherwise everything seemed as it had been. He shut the door.
Robert took off his round wire-rimmed glasses and his shoes. He climbed into the bed, careful not to disturb Elspeth, and folded himself around her. For weeks she had burned with fever, but now her temperature was almost normal. He felt his skin warm slightly where it touched hers. She had passed into the realm of inanimate objects and was losing her own heat. Robert pressed his face into the back of Elspeth's neck and breathed deeply.
Elspeth watched him from the ceiling. How familiar he was to her, and how strange he seemed. She saw, but could not feel, his long hands pressed into her waist everything about him was elongated, his face all jaw and large upper lip; he had a slightly beakish nose and deep-set eyes; his brown hair spilled over her pillow. His skin was pallorous from being too long in the hospital light. He looked so desolate, thin and enormous, spooned around her tiny slack body; Elspeth thought of a photograph she had seen long ago in National Geographic, a mother clutching a child dead from starvation. Robert's white shirt was creased; there were holes in the big toes of his socks. All the regrets and guilts and longings of her life came over her. No, she thought. I won't go. But she was already gone, and in a moment she was elsewhere, scattered nothingness.
The nurse found them half an hour later. She stood quietly, taking in the sight of the tall youngish man curled around the slight, dead, middle-aged woman. Then she went to fetch the orderlies.
Outside, London was waking up. Robert lay with his eyes closed, listening to the traffic on the high street, footsteps in the corridor. He knew that soon he would have to open his eyes, let go of Elspeth's body, sit up, stand up, talk. Soon there would be the future, without Elspeth. He kept his eyes shut, breathed in her fading scent and waited. Copyright © 2009 by Audrey Niffenegger
The letters arrived every two weeks. They did not come to the house. Every second Thursday, Edwina Noblin Poole drove six miles to the Highland Park Post Office, two towns away from her home in Lake Forest. She had a PO box there, a small one. There was never more than one letter in it.
Usually she took the letter to Starbucks and read it while drinking a venti decaf soy latte. She sat in a corner with her back to the wall. Sometimes, if she was in a hurry, Edie read the letter in her car. After she read it she drove to the parking lot behind the hotdog stand on 2nd Street, parked next to the Dumpster and set the letter on fire. "Why do you have a cigarette lighter in your glove compartment?" her husband, Jack, asked her. "I'm bored with knitting. I've taken up arson," Edie had replied. He'd let it drop.
Jack knew this much about the letters because he paid a detective to follow his wife. The detective had reported no meetings, phone calls or email; no suspicious activity at all, except the letters. The detective did not report that Edie had taken to staring at him as she burned the letters, then grinding the ashes into the pavement with her shoe. Once she'd given him the Nazi salute. He had begun to dread following her.
There was something about Edwina Poole that disturbed the detective; she was not like his other subjects. Jack had emphasised that he was not gathering evidence for a divorce. "I just want to know what she does," he said. "Something is...different." Edie usually ignored the detective. She said nothing to Jack. She put up with it, knowing that the overweight, shiny-faced man had no way of finding her out.
The last letter arrived at the beginning of December. Edie retrieved it from the post office and drove to the beach in Lake Forest. She parked in the spot farthest from the road. It was a windy, bitterly cold day. There was no snow on the sand. Lake Michigan was brown; little waves lapped the edges of the rocks. All the rocks had been carefully arranged to prevent erosion; the beach resembled a stage set. The parking lot was deserted except for Edie's Honda Accord. She kept the motor running. The detective hung back, then sighed and pulled into a spot at the opposite end of the parking lot.
Edie glanced at him. Must I have an audience for this? She sat looking at the lake for a while. I could burn it without reading it. She thought about what her life might have been like if she had stayed in London; she could have let Jack go back to America without her. An intense longing for her twin overcame her, and she took the envelope out of her purse, slid her finger under the flap and unfolded the letter.
I told you I would let you know so here it is goodbye.
I try to imagine what it would feel like if it was you but it's impossible to conjure the world without you, even though we've been apart so long.
I didn't leave you anything. You got to live my life. That's enough. Instead I'm experimenting I've left the whole lot to the twins. I hope they'll enjoy it.
Don't worry, it will be okay.
Say goodbye to Jack for me.
Love, despite everything,
Edie sat with her head lowered, waiting for tears. None came, and she was grateful; she didn't want to cry in front of the detective. She checked the postmark. The letter had been mailed four days ago. She wondered who had posted it. A nurse, perhaps.
She put the letter into her purse. There was no need to burn it now. She would keep it for a little while. Maybe she would just keep it. She pulled out of the parking lot. As she passed the detective, she gave him the finger.
Driving the short distance from the beach to her house, Edie thought of her daughters. Disastrous scenarios flitted through Edie's mind. By the time she got home she was determined to stop her sister's estate from passing to Julia and Valentina.
Jack came home from work and found Edie curled up on their bed with the lights off.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Elspeth died," she told him.
"How do you know?"
She handed him the letter. He read it and felt nothing but relief. That's all, he thought. It was only Elspeth all along. He climbed onto his side of the bed and Edie rearranged herself around him. Jack said, "I'm sorry, baby," and then they said nothing. In the weeks and months to come, Jack would regret this; Edie would not talk about her twin, would not answer questions, would not speculate about what Elspeth might have bequeathed to their daughters, would not say how she felt or let him even mention Elspeth. Jack wondered, later, if Edie would have talked to him that afternoon, if he had asked her. If he'd told her what he knew, would she have shut him out? It hung between them, afterwards.
But now they lay together on their bed. Edie put her head on Jack's chest and listened to his heart beating. "Don't worry, it will be okay."...I don't think I can do this. I thought I would see you again. Why didn't I go to you? Why did you tell me not to come? How did we let this happen? Jack put his arms around her. Was it worth it? Edie could not speak.
They heard the twins come in the front door. Edie disentangled herself, stood up. She had not been crying, but she went to the bathroom and washed her face anyway. "Not a word," she said to Jack as she combed her hair.
"Okay." Their eyes met in the dresser mirror. She went out, and he heard her say, "How was school?" in a perfectly normal voice. Julia said, "Useless." Valentina said, "You haven't started dinner?" and Edie replied, "I thought we might go to Southgate for pizza." Jack sat on the bed feeling heavy and tired. As usual, he wasn't sure what was what, but at least he knew what he was having for dinner. Copyright © 2009 by Audrey Niffenegger