Most people know Audrey Niffenegger from her bestseller The Time Traveller’s Wife, and that’s certainly a book that’s near and dear to my heart. Her Fearful Symmetry is the second novel by Niffenegger, released about one year ago on Oct. 1 of ’09. I was sad to see that her amazing first person present narrative was not in place for this novel, since Time Traveller’s Wife was probably the most convincing in-the-moment story I’ve ever read, and I can’t help but throw myself down at the feet of authors who can pull it off; it’s such a difficult way to write. But then again, that novel was about living in the moment, and Her Fearful Symmetry has almost the opposite feel to it.
However, this novel does again what I’m going to start calling “the Niffenegger thing,” which is that the author once again created a seamless universe where what we would call “reality” coexists perfectly with the supernatural/fantastic/sci-fi aspects that are so central to these stories. There are ghosts in Her Fearful Symmetry; hybrids of cultural superstition and pure practicality. But as we read we find that the ghost of Elspeth belongs just as much in the scene of her apartment as the dust covered piano and the pale Noblin twins. The story seems to say “This is how it is,” and there are no doubts, and no visible fault lines; no evidence of pieces being forced into place. The fact that much of the supernatural that Niffenegger throws at us is adequately explained in un-genred terms helps for these stories to be accessible to the general reader, and not shoved away into the bookstore recesses of “genre fiction.”
Because really, Her Fearful Symmetry is about bonds and relationships, and what happens when our bonds with another person eat up too much of our own identity. The most obvious show of this is between Julia and Valentina, where Valentina would rather risk death than to be Julia’s other half for the rest of her life. But we also see it in the mixed identities of the original Noblin twins, Eddie and Elspeth: they have also allowed each other’s identity to consume most of their lives. In an interesting twist, the redeemer here for this situation is actually Jack, the father who, until the last chapters, has been just a name in the novel. And while it may be a less obvious case, Robert also is eaten up by his relationship with Elspeth, and also his relationship with his beloved Highgate Cemetery. His sudden disappearance at the end of the novel may be vague and mysterious, but when you realize that he is suffering from the same feelings that plagued Valentina about her twin, maybe the reader can begin to understand why he had to leave.
What we’re left with is a familiar melancholy, but don’t let this scare you; it’s not just a ghost story.