Her Fearful Symmetry

Elspeth Noblin, losing her battle against leukemia, sets about putting her earthly affairs in order. She wills her entire estate to the twin daughters of her own estranged twin sister, Edie, with a couple of stipulations: the inheriting nieces must live in Elspeth’s London flat for a year, and their parents, the hated Edie and Jack, must not set foot in the place. She’s “experimenting”, Elspeth explains in the last of her secret letters to her twin, adding that she’s not leaving it to Edie because “You got to live my life. That’s enough.” The younger twins, Valentina and Julia, have no other obligations or aspirations in life, so they take up Elspeth’s offer and remove themselves to London. It takes them quite some time to discover what the reader knows all along: dearly departed Aunt Elspeth hasn’t quite…departed. Her spirit is trapped in the flat and looking for a way out, and she’s getting stronger by the day.

Delightful premise, no? What an adventure, to be young, beautiful, and independently wealthy in London. How exciting, to inherit a spacious flat full of interesting objects, overlooking a scenic and historic graveyard. How thrilling, to discover your mysterious auntie’s ghost is companionably hanging about the place, giving you a chance to get to know her and maybe unravel some ancient family mysteries. This book held so much promise, only to waste it—much like the young women at the center of the story.

Beware: I’m going to spoil the heck out of this thing; if you’re planning to read it, stop here. I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the ‘surprises’ for you—although, I warn you: they’re not “Happy Birthday, we got you a cake!” surprises so much as “Uh-oh, we amputated the wrong leg!” surprises.

Valentina and Julia aren’t characters, they’re fetish dolls. They’re vanishingly pale and tiny; at 21 years old, they’re still wearing identical cutesy outfits and doing absolutely everything together, including sleeping in the same bed. Everyone who sees them remarks on their immaturity; several characters mistake them for 12- or 16-year-old girls, they’re compared to kittens, and two different characters address them as “Child”, without either of them taking umbrage. Note that this physical and emotional immaturity doesn’t prevent Elspeth’s bereaved boyfriend, Robert, from taking up with Valentina, once he gets up the nerve to meet the twins. (He lives in the flat directly below them, and spends the first couple of months creepily stalking them all over London instead of simply introducing himself.) Why, Valentina’s a younger, fresher, virginal copy of his lost Elspeth! It’s almost better than the real thing!

This is what I most objected to in the book: this depiction of twins, and women in general, as interchangeable. You see, the big secret that has kept Elspeth and Edie apart for over 20 years is (surprise!): they switched identities! Ghostly “Elspeth” is really Edie, and suburban “Edie” is really Elspeth!! See if you can follow this: the original Elspeth wanted to test her boyfriend Jack’s fidelity, so she pretended to be her twin and came on to him. He could tell the difference, but played along because he was mad at her. This ridiculous game went on for some time, until Jack upped the ante by breaking up with Elspeth and proposing to Elspeth-pretending-to-be-Edie—the same woman, mind you, just using her sister’s name. Now, the complication: at some point before the wedding, the real Edie gets drunk and sleeps with Jack; naturally, she gets pregnant from this encounter. So Elspeth-pretending-to-be-Edie marries Jack, then puts real-Edie-pregnant-with-Jack’s-babies on the plane to Chicago with him. A few months after the twins are born, real-Edie goes to London to visit Elspeth and hand over the babies. Elspeth returns with the children to America, to live with her actual husband, raise her nieces as her daughters, and pretend to be Edie for the next two decades. The reason the elder twins never see each other again is because they’re afraid Jack will be able to tell them apart if he sees them side by side.

Ah, but there’s another twisteroonie, because Jack could ALWAYS tell them apart! He knows it’s real-Edie moving to Chicago with him, and he doesn’t ask why. He never asks either of them what they hell they think they’re up to. Worse, he doesn’t remember the drunken tumble with real-Edie, so for 20+ years, he thinks he’s raising the cuckoo’s-egg children of the sister-in-law he hates. He knows that his real wife came back from London with the twins—apparently, childbirth changes the body in ways even profoundly stupid men can perceive—and that seems to be enough for him. He never confronts his wife about any of this.

I have to tell you, I hate books where the plot requires the characters to be situationally stupid. To make this plot work, Niffenegger had two options with Jack: make him too stupid to tell the difference between his wife and her twin, or make him too stupid to call either of them out on their life-altering shenanigans. Either way, the plot turns on the convenient stupidity of a character not otherwise shown to be in need of Miracle-Gro and frequent waterings. Then there’s Elspeth’s narcissistic idiocy in originally trying to fool him, and Edie’s foolishness in playing along. All of these people would have been better off if at any point any one of them had had the self-respect to call anyone else on their unbelievable bullshit. Instead, it just carries through to the next generation.

So, back to the plot (that’s just the backstory, friends—it gets worse from here!) One of the tragic consequences of Edie and Elspeth’s deception is that Jack only finds out after Valentina is dead that she was really his child all along. Oh, sorry, SPOILER: Valentina dies. You see, I was wrong to say the Dollies have no aspirations; Valentina wants desperately to go to college and become a fashion designer. Julia forbids it, out of disinterest. She doesn’t want to go to college, and there’s certainly no way her twin could go without her, therefore, they won’t go. So they stay cooped up in a big, creepy house at the edge of a big, creepy graveyard for months on end and get paler and thinner and creepier, being spied upon by their creepy dead aunt/mother and her creepy living boyfriend. (At this point, I realize that someone should have explained to Niffenegger that masturbating pseudo-necrophiliac para-pedophiles, while certainly very creepy, aren’t the kind of creepy people are generally looking for from ghost stories.)

Eventually, Elspeth gets strong enough to affect things in the physical world. First, she uses the ability to communicate her presence; once lines of communication are established, she pursues her fixation with Valentina, now intensified and complicated by the fact Val is sleeping with Robert. She discovers that she is able to pull a soul out of a living body and replace it when she accidentally kills, and then resurrects, the house kitten. (A tiny, pure-white kitten trapped in the flat against her will, I bother to note. Whatever could the author be driving at?) This gives Valentina a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea: Elspeth can ‘kill’ her, leaving her body for Julia to find, and then after the funeral, she can put Val’s spirit right back, and Val and Robert can run away and be free of Julia. Yes, stop a moment here: this bright spark chooses to fake her death (risking real death in the event human spirits are more complicated than those of kittens), devastate her entire family, and disappear, rather than tell her bossy sister where to get off. Is this the character the author wants us to sympathize with? Because…no. At this point, I was sure Elspeth was going to murder her own daughter and take over her body, and I was just about rooting for her to do it.

An incredible (by which I mean, literally not-credible) range of people are drawn into help with the plot; it all goes off without a hitch, and Valentina and Robert live happily ever after. Oh, no, wait! That would be silly. No, it turns out that Valentina’s ghost isn’t strong enough to inhabit her week-old corpse, so Elspeth runs off with it to reunite with Robert—who, to his vanishingly small credit, CAN tell the difference between Elspeth and Valentina, even when they’re in the same body. Things go badly between them, but not until after Valentina’s un-dead body manages to conceive a child, who I’m sure won’t be at all traumatized by being abandoned before birth by his father and raised by his insane re-animated (grand)mother. (Do I smell a sequel?)

Valentina’s ghost eventually finds a non-homicidal way to leave the flat and Julia discovers that hey, what do you know? She CAN live without her twin at her constant beck and call, after all—probably should have let the silly cow go to college in the first place. We don’t know what becomes of Jack and Edie—except that he suddenly starts calling her by her real name, so they’re probably going to be okay–and Martin overcomes his OCD to reunite with Marijke in Amsterdam. Wait! Who with the what now? Well, I wasn’t going to mention Martin and Marijke, because they’re decent people who deserve to exist in a different book. But I want to point out that Marijke, alone in the entire book, has sufficient sense of self to extricate herself from a loved one’s bullshit. Tired of putting up with the effects of Martin’s OCD, she walks out on him at the beginning of the book, daring him to get well enough to come find her. In doing so, she becomes the only character to avoid entanglement in the ridiculous mess the Noblin women create for themselves and everyone around them; if only I’d had the presence of mind to follow her out the door!

This review was part of the Readers Imbibing Peril V Challenge.

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14 Responses to Her Fearful Symmetry

  1. Jen says:

    I must admit I loved this book, but I can see your points about the characters. They did drive me crazy – Valentina needed to grow a backbone already, and Robert is a wuss. But I got hooked on Niffenegger’s writing after The Time Traveler’s Wife (did you read that? What did you think?) and so I enjoyed the story overall. It made me want to go visit Highgate Cemetery. I also enjoyed Martin and Marijke’s story and was really rooting for him to manage to get out the door.

    P.S. This is my first visit to your blog – wandered over from the RIP review site (although I hoped for a positive review, lol!). So hi!

  2. kaizerin says:

    Thanks so much for dropping by, Jen! I agree with you about the readability of HFS–in fact, if I hadn’t been so drawn into the story in the early part, maybe I wouldn’t have been so mad when it all went off the rails? I was having a lovely time imagining myself coming into that incredible inheritance, and what I would do with it. And I absolutely want to explore Highgate Cemetary further–both in literature and in life!

  3. Amanda says:

    I love coming across spoilers for books that I’d like to hear about but never, ever want to read. 😀

  4. kaizerin says:

    Amanda, we’re going to get along famously, I can just tell. I’m the same way with spoilers: there are some things that I’m clearly never going to subject myself to [tactfully refraining from mentioning any widely-adored bestsellers] but which inspire a lingering curiosity none-the-less. Spoilery reviews scratch that itch!

  5. Kailana says:

    I actually had planned to read this book for the challenge this year, but not sure if I will or not…

  6. kaizerin says:

    Hi Kailana, thanks for stopping by! If you’re really interested in the book, don’t let my crankiness put you off reading it. Everyone gets something different from a book, and the things that bother me might not bother you. I know there are plenty of people out there who totally love this book.

    And if you do give it a go, come back and let us know how it went!

  7. CountessZ says:

    As always, you make very excellent points. I will say that, in reading it last year, I found myself completely and utterly and horrifyingly engrossed in the book. At the end I was left with an overwhelming feeling of numb. It was almost unbelievable that people could be this…stupid? Despicable? Selfish? Monstrous? And yet, sadly, these foolish, emotional, and idiotic people are making decisions (in an admittedly over-the-top melodramatic fashion) that seem very much in keeping with the way that broken, wounded people behave.

    And as you rightly pointed out, the only bright spot and happiness in the book is the story of Martin and his love. I would like to hope that they were put there as a glimmer of hope that the future of the twin that has been left behind will not be so horribly dysfunctional and sad and isolated. But maybe I am being too hopeful.

    I will say that after I was done, I wanted to read her other book. I put it on hold at the library, and it pretty quickly came in. I started to read it, but just couldn’t get into it.

    Reading through your review, I think there may be a myriad of reasons why that was the case. Much here that is problematic.

  8. Birdie says:

    Day-um. I’m tempted to read this now on the grounds that it must be the perfect novel equivalent of a Hammer horror film!
    Thanks for the warning

  9. kaizerin says:

    CZ–It might have helped if the book had given us any suggestion why the characters were so damaged, but we’re left to draw the conclusion that the mere fact of being a twin is deranging. And maybe living their entire lives with the projections of people like Niffenegger is a little madness-inducing. (For a long time in my childhood I wished I had been a twin, but now I realize how much of other people’s psycho-sexual bullshit I avoided by being born a singleton.)

    Birdie: No lifeguard on duty: read at your own risk!

  10. CountessZ says:

    Personally I thought Niffenegger painted a pretty clear picture of one of those horribly “perfect” suburban upbringings where there are strange tensions underneath everything–secrets, lies, the usual. Not horribly traumatic, but twisty and damaging nonetheless. The parents seemed to both overly protect and completely fail to enforce any kind of boundaries. They clearly had their own damage and issues they were desperately trying not to confront. This is the damage of the privileged, to be sure, and as such makes it hard to feel anything even remotely resembling sympathy for any of the characters. Except Martin. I am not generally good at seeing where a mystery is going, so I think I was just completely carried along by the tension of what would happen next.

  11. kaizerin says:

    I can go with their damage being massive Narcissistic Personality Disorder with a heaping side-helping of Never Seen a Real Damn Problem in Their Lives. Sounds about right.

  12. Fence says:

    ha! Great review. I enjoyed the opening of this book and then it all got so terrible! I wasn’t quite so negative in my review ( http://www.susanhatedliterature.net/2009/12/07/her-fearful-symmetry/ ) but thinking about it now, after all this time, I think you are right. It is just a shocking book! And yet, some part of me still liked the beginning of it 🙂

  13. kaizerin says:

    Oh, I agree with you, Fence–the beginning of the book was lovely. It was a great set-up for a book; I just didn’t like where she went with it.

    In subsequent conversations with CountessZ, I came to the conclusion that maybe this was a sort of updated “Monkey’s Paw”–you know, it’s hard when we lose a loved one, but it’s worse if we can’t quite let them go!

  14. Ha ha! I love your review, and I agree with most or all of it. You put some things in words that I had subconsciously noticed but hadn’t thought about it enough to write it in my review.

    I lovely rant. I enjoyed the book, but oh, oh, there are some really bad elements in the story, as you very clearly pointed out.

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