This weekend I watched The Time Traveler's Wife with my dear Leyla. This book, and subsequent film based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger is truly a gripping piece of writing portrayed beautifully by Hollywood (which rarely happens!). The way she weaves the lives of the characters in the novel is amazing to me. Following so many jumps through time and space, I have great respect for her as writer as this book shows her true gift. However, her second major novel, Her Fearful Symmetry did not get the attention The Time Traveler's Wife did. I'm not sure why as when I read it I again fell in love with Niffenegger's poetic narrative style and her ability to create a story that may or may not be possible. The idea of the paranormal or "magic" is present in both books, but in two entirely different ways.
After I read Her Fearful Symmetry, I wrote a review of the book originally published by Suite 101.com. In honor of my recent evening with the magic of The Time Traveler's Wife, I'd like to reprint my thoughts on Her Fearful Symmetry. It is a book worth picking up.
Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (MacAdam/Cage 2003) was a work that took Niffenegger four long years to develop. It wasn't an easy feat to accomplish, but after fielding many rejections, she finally made her debut masterpiece a success with readers everywhere. When an authors first book commands such a powerful audience, the follow up novel is often the true test of real writing talent. Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger's much awaited sophomore work, continues an established line of excellence for this visual and written artist.
This somewhat Gothic novel set primarily in London near the historic Highgate Cemetery, explores the intricacies of life and death in way people do not often consider. While most believe living is worth fighting for but when the battle is lost, it is lost and that dying is the final end to a life lived, she artistically exposes a discrepancy in this idea. The characters within the novel bring to life the less than final concept of death and illuminate the internal struggle of people unable to find themselves in an overwhelming world of others. Her characters embody a myriad of traits from selfishness to selflessness, bizarre to balanced , introverted to extroverted, and admirable to apathetic. It is within this daring attempt to develop the story from multiple view points that Niffenegger captures the vivid focus of readers pouring through the pages trying to solve the mystery of life beyond death
Weaved within the collective perspective she is able to create an obvious protagonist. Readers immediately meet Elspeth Noblin, a character with unknown avaricious motives, who has been diagnosed with cancer. She dies at the very young age of forty-four and her will establishes her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina Poole, as heirs to her estate including her London dwelling on the adjacent side of Highgate Cemetery. Because the twins have been estranged from their aunt for most of their lives, they agree to move to London mostly out of curiosity. Upon consent to live there for one year before selling the property or belongings, the twins hope to learn about their aunt Elspeth and why she and their mother Eddy, Elspeth's twin, haven't spoken in almost 20 years.
Leaving her lover Robert, a seemingly career student working to complete his thesis on the history of Highgate Cemetery and the notable people buried within, to deal with her estate and the twins' arrival, it is expected that he will develop a relationship with the twins in order for them to better know "Aunt" Elspeth. It is through this tumultuous relationship with the twins that readers learn the true motives of all the well-drawn characters of the book. Only Niffenegger, with her descriptive but never overbearing style of writing, can bring readers full circle for poignant characters like Robert: pity him, like him, love him, hate him, respect him. These evoked emotions are the work of a true scribe. Include with this writing style Niffenegger's ability to keep a ghost as the believable and real main character throughout the work continually intertwined with her former lover while enviously watching him try to move on shows her true literary talent. Elspeth's struggle to escape the death she is now sustaining as a prisoner of spirit in her apartment drives the momentum of the story and in the capable hands of this talented author, the concept is completely believable.
Congruent with Elspeth's passing is another dimension of focus; the living character of Valentina who is struggling to find her life independent of her twin. She is the more soft spoken of the two and has spent most of her existence in Julia's shadow. Because Valentina finds herself more harmonious with silence, it is she that discovers the spirit of Elspeth living within the walls of their home. Using elements such as a Ouija board and writings in the dust, Valentina and Elspeth develop a close relationship reaching across the boundaries of the real world and the spirit world. This bond leads readers to the final destination of this tale that is as heart-wrenching as it is shocking. Valentina's and Elspeth's final sonorous endeavor to escape their circumstance is astounding; its results, astonishing.
The ability to transcend both life and death through trial and error make this novel hard to put down. Niffenegger's play on the idea of symmetry coupled with the concept of fear begs the question of one's ability to sustain expectations long after the soul has left the body. Readers will find themselves engrossed not only in the plot and underlying elements that make one question how finite the line really is between the living and dead, but also in the characters and their continual conflicts to become more than they are. Her Fearful Symmetry is ethereal and alluring, a ghost story for the ages; a well done novel for round two.