The many fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife have been waiting years now for Niffenegger’s new book and the wait is finally over. Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t disappoint, with a new and very different cast of characters set in beautiful London and centered around famous Highgate Cemetery. Niffenegger went out of her way in researching this book, spending time in London, as well as volunteering to work at the cemetery herself. The result is another moving novel that appears simple at first, but becomes further complex and moving as the story progresses, the characters growing on you, making themselves a part of your life.
When Elspeth Noblin dies, she wills her beautiful London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, but with a few caveats: their parents are never to enter the apartment, and the twins must reside there for a full year before they may choose to sell it. With the apartment comes a substantial inheritance. The twins, now twenty-one, are still undecided on what to do with their lives, moving from school to school, spending every moment together – they are still virgins and have never had any serious relationships for fear of having to be apart. They seem to adhere to many of the stereotypes of twins. But the further one gets in the book, the more one finds that Julia and Valentina may not be destined to spends their lives linked together.
They move to London, to the apartment, viewing the sites, and waiting for inspiration to strike and help them decide what they want to do – they have enough money to live off for the time being. In the building they meet some very special people and each befriend them in different ways. There is Martin, a man plagued with obsessive compulsive disorder, who refuses to take any medication, and has sealed himself in his apartment, the windows covered up, the rooms filled with boxed and carefully-wrapped items. He spends his days trying to make it across the room by counting and doing things repeatedly. For his day job he creates complex crossword puzzles with his computer, never needing to move from the confines of his humble abode. His wife, Marijke, has abandoned him, unable to take his ways anymore, and has moved back to Amsterdam. One day Martin hopes to leave his home, take a plane, and reunite with her once again. Then there is Robert, Elspeth’s mysterious and elusive lover who is also living off an inheritance, and spends his days writing a never-ending book on Highgate cemetery where he volunteers. And finally there is what appears to be a ghostly presence living in the apartment with the girls. But ghosts aren’t real, right?
While the head jumping and narration switching from sentence to sentence may take some getting used to, it is a style that works for the book. The result is a novel that is just as moving and memorable as The Time Traveler’s Wife, perhaps in some ways more so for some. Regardless, Her Fearful Symmetry, once read, is a book unlike any other.
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Originally written on September 29th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.