Audrey Niffenegger’s latest novel Her Fearful Symmetry explores the lives of a set of twins who are bequeathed an apartment in London by their late aunt, Elspeth Noblin. Elspeth has been estranged from her twin sister Edie for 20 years. Elspeth is diagnosed with cancer and, knowing that she has less than a year to live, begins writing to Edie, who has moved to the United States and settled into a Chicago suburb with her husband and their twin daughters. The sisters don’t have any other contact other than the letters that Elspeth sends, but when Elspeth dies, she leaves her flat, bordering Highgate Cemetary, and money, to Edie and Jack’s twin girls, Valentina and Julia Poole.
The conditions of her will state that the girls must live in the flat in London for at least a year before they are able to sell it, and that their parents are to never step foot inside the flat, not even to visit. During the year they spend in London, the girls are introduced to quirky and emotionally troubled neighbors with questionable lifestyles. They try to figure out what it means to have existed in double for an entire life, and whether they will be able to forge and pursue interests separate from one another.
I was immediately drawn in and intrigued by the characters – the themes of loss, isolation and identity that they were facing, and the variety choices they made in determining their lives were fascinating. The first third of the novel had me deeply invested in finding out how they had gotten to where they were in life, and what would happen next. Living so deeply entwined for so many years seems to have had a profound detrimental impact in Elspeth and Edie’s lives, and there is a sense as the book unfolds that the same tragic pattern is emerging among Valentina and Julia. I watched to see whether they would be able to manage their connection and start to create and invest in what could be a healthy and satisfying lives for the both of them. Elspeth also adds a unique dynamic to their relationship- the twins are in her apartment, surrounded by her things, and are also graced with her presence as a spirit who is not quite ready to move on.
Julia gravitates toward Martin, an intelligent and oddly charming older man whose lifestyle is severely inhibited by a crippling case of OCD. Martin is learning to live alone after his long-suffering wife Marike, has finally left him, unable to live with his untreated illness any longer. Valentina has strange interactions with Robert, Elspeth’s younger lover, who can barely manage to face them in the wake of Elspeth’s death. As I settled into the middle part of Her Fearful Symmetry, my interest started to wane considerably, as the story wanders and becomes a bit stagnant. The pacing slowed to the point where I wondered if there would be a point to the book, as Julia and Valentina wandered aimlessly through London, covering the same emotional conflicts and concerns. There was a point where it would have been very easy for me to walk away and not finish the book.
The last third of Her Fearful Symmetry was able to get the book back on track for me as a precipitating event finally brings the mounting issues and tensions to a head, and the answers to some long answering questions are brought to light. I loved the moral implications about identity and the lengths that people are willing to go to for self-preservation. Once again Niffenegger presents a story with polarizing and off the beaten path issues to explore. I’m impressed with the varied themes and stories that she chooses to explore with her clear and engaging prose. I like thinking about her stories, and so far they have made for great discussions, but if they were a little bit tighter I think I would like them that much more.