Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

This is the second novel from the author of Time Traveller's Wife and has been getting excellent reviews. It's not quite the emotionally engaging success that TTW is, but it is creepily compelling.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London, it is the story of two sets of twins: Edie and Elspeth, and Edie's daughters Julia and Valentina. Something happened between Edie and Elspeth, and for over 20 years they haven't been in contact. Edie and her family live in Chicago, while Elspeth lives in London overlooking the cemetery. At the start of the novel, Elspeth is dying and arranges for her nieces to inherit her estate, with the condition they live in the flat for a year before they can sell it.

The other residents of the apartment building are Robert, Elspeth's lover, who lives in the flat below and works at the cemetery while writing his history thesis on it. Upstairs are Martin and Marijke: Martin has OCD, and his obsessions have finally driven Marijke away after 25 years.

The book is a meditation on identity, the meaning of "home" and the role of relationships to identity. Once Elspeth dies, she becomes a ghost and ends up haunting her flat. What does it mean to be "Elspeth" without her body? Robert is devastated by her death, but what does it mean to him to have her back in ghost form? They are, as he says, "betwixt and between." He wants to come to her, but she doesn't want him to die. Even if he did, they might end up haunting their own flats and never be able to reach each other.

Martin has identity issues--he has a rational brain that understands the pointlessness of his OCD compulsions, yet he can't overcome them with logic. He can take medications, but the side effects rob him of different parts of his identity and so he chooses not to take them. Marijke cannot bear to be robbed of her identity by Martin's compulsions, and she ends up leaving him to return home to Amsterdam, even while remaining in love with him. For Martin, is the flat still "home" without his wife?

Julia and Valentina have their own struggle with identity. Valentina is the weaker and more compliant of the two, but she wants to have her own life and identity separate from her sister. Julia can't imagine ever being apart. Valentina has also fallen in love with Robert, and Julia resents the time she spends with him, resenting the way Robert comes between them. Robert has started to heal from his grief, and starts to consider the possibility of a life with Valentina, when Elspeth makes her presence known.

Niffenegger posits that a ghost starts out as weak as a newborn, and Elspeth has had to train to have any effect in the physical world. The revelation comes as she discovers she can write in the dust on a piano. Robert and the twins develop a home-made Ouija board, and Robert spends hours "talking" to Elspeth through automatic writing as well. As time passes, Valentina begins to be able to see Elspeth and the two of them spend hours together as well.

Matters come to a climax after Elspeth accidentally catches the soul of a kitten while playing with it, but manages to put it back into the cat's body, literally resurrecting it. Valentina sees this as a way to escape her sister--apparently she's completely incapable of simply enrolling in design school without Julia's permission so she creates an elaborate scheme to free herself from her sister. She convinces Elspeth to pull her soul out of her body, and then has Robert steal the corpse from the mausoleum so Elspeth can put her soul back in. Julia will be convinced Valentina is dead, so V can go off and live a non-twin life.

It is a stupid plan, of course, but Elspeth is convinced that Valentina is desperate enough to kill herself to escape Julia, and this way there is a chance that V won't die. This is how she forces Robert to participate--because either way, he will be guilty of V's death.


Of course, it works, sort of, but in all the wrong ways. Elspeth is able to grasp V's soul and pull it out of the girl's body. Robert is able to pull strings with people he knows so Valentina's body is not embalmed, so that it is kept cold, and she is buried in the family mausoleum in Highgate. Robert is able to bring the corpse back to the flat and Elspeth tries to put the soul back in, but V is far too weak, and her soul doesn't go back inside, so Elspeth takes the body instead. Robert is again trapped between the two women--the soul of the woman he first loved, the body of the second one. Elspeth has come back to him, because he could not come to her. Valentina is trapped in the flat as a ghost, now more dependent on Julia than ever before. Julia is heartbroken, but is aware of V's presence in a way she never felt Elspeth's.

In the end, Robert and Elspeth leave London to avoid Julia seeing them. They have a son, although Robert has become distracted, and soon after his son's birth he finishes the enormous thesis and escapes. Elspeth eventually comes to realize he will never return.

Julia learns to see Valentina, and helps her to escape as well. Valentina climbs into Julia's mouth, and Julia carries her to the cemetary, where Valentina meets other ghosts, learns to fly on crows, and finds to her surprise that she is happy.

Martin takes small steps in overcoming his OCD, and at the end of the book is able to travel to Amsterdam, back to Marijke. He escapes his condition, his apartment, his old life in favor of a new one with his wife. Their son Theo comes to the flat, and Julia is probably going to fall in love with him.

There are some interesting parallels--Elspeth must wait for Robert, but she gets impatient and comes to him and so drives him away. Marijke waits for Martin, and by waiting they come together in what promises to be a happy way. Valentina is trapped in her life with Julia, and by dying she becomes free. Elspeth is free in life, but trapped in death. Elspeth and Edie are twins who regretted their separation, Valentina and Julia are twins who should have been more individual.

The great secret of the Noblin twins is finally revealed as well. Edie and Elspeth switched names over Edie's determination to test her fiance's love. (Like "The Marriage of Figaro" or "Two Gentlemen of Verona" perhaps.) Edie was engaged to James, but insisted she and her sister switch identities to see if James could tell. He could, but went along with the scheme. He fell in love with the "other" sister and broke his engagement to one and married the "other." So they remained switched their entire lives. The woman who lived in London and died of leukemia was actually named "Edwina" but for her sister's sake took "Elspeth" as her name. However, the London woman had slept with James once, possibly to spite her sister, and ended up pregnant. Thus the twins Julia and Valentina were actually the daughters of the London Elspeth, not the Chicago Edie. More playing with identity--which only created misery and loneliness.

The specter of death infuses the book--the main characters all live adjacent to the cemetary, Robert works there and writes about it, Elspeth is buried there, Julia and Valentina are grave owners. Various characters muse on the difference between historical graves and the burial of people they know.

The title refers to William Blake's famous poem "The Tyger."

There is some wonderful writing, and some eerie ghost-story-ness to this book, but it feels to me that Niffenegger hadn't quite gotten enough time with it to fully finish what it was meant to be. The scenes around Valentina's death and funeral feel out of touch--the grief is not fully rendered, but only sketched. Robert's abandonment of reincarnated Elspeth and his son is tossed in and seen at a remove. We have spend a great deal of the book inside Robert's head: it's just odd to have no insight into his thoughts about Elspeth's return or why he had to leave.

Julia is rather sketchy as well--she is bossy and orders Valentina around, and yet she is the one afraid to live life without her twin. Julia is the one who abandons college, but we never know why. Julia is the one who expects V to sleep in the same bed, wear the same clothing, do everything together--what is she afraid of if V goes to school without her?

Why are Elspeth and Robert so certain Valentina will kill herself if she doesn't escape Julia immediately? Why do they think participating in V's death and possible resurrection is the right thing to do? Was Elspeth as selfless as she claimed to be, or did she suspect that she would be able to inhabit V's body because V would be too weak?

The bones of a great novel are all there, but the body is a bit gaunt. Still, it's a fascinating read and worth the time.

ETA: I just read the NYT review, and there are two things I wish I had come up with myself: 1) that when pronounced with an English accent, "symmetry" and "cemetary" sound an awful lot alike, and 2) that the novel is concerned with "obsession" as much as anything else. I totally agree--the characters are engaged in a struggle to balance obsession with love, as well as identity.

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