Before all you The Time Traveler’s Wife haters start hmmphing and questioning my taste, hold it.
While there are some elements to Her Fearful Symmetry that, like TTW, might have you haters rolling your eyes—no, there aren’t any time traveling librarians in this one, but yes, there are ghosts—this is a fast-paced read with clever plot twists. So give it a chance.
Not to mention the characters: Elspeth, the ghost, who becomes jealous when her boyfriend Robert starts falling for…her niece Valentina, one of the twin sisters who has inherited her flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery; Martin, the brilliant, crossword puzzle setting upstairs neighbor…who suffers from such crippling OCD that he can’t leave his flat; Julia, Valentina’s twin, who insists she and her sister keep dressing in matching clothes…did I mention they’re 21-year-old virgins?
I think Niffenegger gets points for creating a character with the name Elspeth, if nothing else. Elspeth? What? Where are we?
If you’re not sold yet, I’ll let you in on the major selling points for me:
London. Highgate Cemetery. LONDON (with references to bus routes, the underground, Tesco Express, and Boots!)
That’s really all I needed to know. Of course, I’m still plotting my escape to London, so I’m biased. And my favorite British professor took our lit class to Highgate Cemetery for a tour, so that also helps.
One of my favorite elements of the book is how Niffenegger’s characters deal with grief—for Robert, it’s grief over the death of Elspeth; for Martin, it’s grief over his wife leaving him because he refuses to treat his OCD; for Julia, it’s grief over the realization that she and her twin Valentina must forge individual identities.
I particularly loved how she dealt with Martin’s grief. Because when your wife of twenty-plus years walks out on you, that must feel pretty close to a death. Isn’t it?
As each night passed he found it more difficult to evoke Marijke precisely. He panicked and pinned up dozens of photographs of her all over the flat. Somehow this only made things worse. His actual memories began to be replaced by the images; his wife, a whole human being, was turning into a collection of dyes on small white rectangles of paper. Even the photographs were not as intensely colourful as they had once been, he could see that. Washing them didn’t help. Marijke was bleaching out of his memory. The harder he tried to keep her the faster she seemed to vanish.
And then there’s Robert, who lurks around Elspeth’s family tomb at Highgate after her death, hoping for some sign of her:
On these nights in the cemetery Robert stood in front of Elspeth’s grave, or sat on its solitary step with his back against the uncomfortable grillwork. It did not bother him when he stood by the Rossetti grave and couldn’t feel the presence of Lizzie or Christina, but he found it disturbing to visit Elspeth and find that she was not “at home” to him. In the early days after her death he’d hovered around the tomb, waiting for a sign of any sort. “I’ll haunt you,” she’d said when they’d told her she was terminal. “Do that,” he had replied, kissing her gaunt neck. But she was not haunting him, except in his memory, where she dwindled and blazed at all the wrong moments.
By the end of that paragraph I caught myself nodding as I read it. “She was not haunting him, except in his memory”—yes, exactly. I know that feeling.
I spent my entire Friday afternoon on my couch reading this book. You can either be lame and call me a geek, or be hip and call me to borrow my copy.
Up next: The Women's Room, by the late, great Marilyn French.