Twins. Ghosts. Mystery. A cemetery. A man with crippling OCD.
Funnily enough, its the last one that makes Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry worth while.
Twins Valentina and Julia Poole barely know anything about their Aunt Elspeth, their mother’s twin sister. So when Elspeth dies and leaves all of her belongings, including her flat in England to the twins, they are a little more than surprised. To make things more interesting, the twins must stay in the flat for a year, and their parents are forbidden from entering it.
The twins move to London, attempting to recreate their mundane
pointless lives. However, the presence of their neighbours: Martin, a man with crippling OCD who never leaves his apartment and wife has left him; and Robert, scholar of the neighbouring cemetery and Elspeth’s lover, may change all that.
There is another presence too. One that can’t seem to leave her old apartment.
In one word: predictable. About ten pages into this novel and I knew what it was going to be about. The near-incestuous closeness of the twins, the separation of loving husband and wife because of his disorder, and the borderline obsession Robert has over Elspeth—the book practically screamed “I AM ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS AND OVER-RELIANCE ON OTHERS.”
So it came as no surprise when the story was about Julia and Valentina fighting and drifting apart, about Robert trying and failing to get over Elspeth, about Martin overcoming his OCD.
Funnily enough, the supernatural element was predictable too. The moment Valentina enters the apartment she notices the presence of something there. Naturally she’d become some sort of medium.
And that’s all the spoiler I’m giving for the ending. Other than this: It. Was. Terrible.
The ending was irrational, stupid, and wholly unsatisfying. Actually, scratch that. Robert’s final decision is immensely satisfying and Martin’s ending was…perfect.
I swear, if this book was just about Martin, I would be satisfied. There was real struggle in his story, real depth. And, unfortunately, it was a side plot.
The main plot features relatively unlikeable characters: a bland scholar, a clingy twin, a rebellious twin, and a ghost. Then these characters are thrown into a ridiculous and irrational scheme.
Robert’s dilemma was enough to make me close the book several times: “Do I still obsess over my-dead-but-not-really-because-she’s-haunting-her-flat lover or try to bang her almost-young-enough-to-be-my-own-daughter clone in the form of her niece?”
Yes. I did actually just write that sentence because yes, that is actually part of the plot.
And that’s the other thing. There is very little explanation in this novel. Why is it that Valentina is the only one who can sense/see Elspeth? What’s so important about the fact that Julia and Valentina are “mirror twins”? Why can’t Elspeth leave the apartment? Why isn’t Robert seeing a therapist?
This book has some major flaws in terms of plot. The few up-sides are (1) Martin’s story and (2) Niffenegger’s writing. I don’t think I could have made it though without both of these elements.
Recommendations: Don’t Bother. If you’re into ghost stories…find another book. Like I said, this is pretty predictable, and I have a feeling there are more interesting ghost stories out there. If you’re into something that’s a little outside-the-box and can tolerate unconventional relationships, you might enjoy this book. I doubt you’ll be rereading it though (since I certainly won’t…except for maybe the Martin plot line).