Phew. I think we can all collectively agree that we were a little nervy when we heard Audrey Niffenegger had a new novel. Readers, at least the ones I like to talk to, are a judge-y bunch of nitpickers who all loved The Time Traveler’s Wife and hated the idea that this writer would face-flop into a bog of suck on No. 2. Rest easy, my friends. Her Fearful Symmetry isn’t better than Niffenegger’s debut novel, but it doesn’t inspire the sort of disappointed fan letter that begins: “Oh, Aud. Why couldn’t you have pulled a Harper Lee and been done with it?”
Valentina and Julia are creepy anemic twins who do everything together, from sleeping in the same bed to dropping out of multiple colleges to wearing matching outfits. When their aunt Elspeth — their mother’s estranged twin sister — dies, Elspeth wills the duo her condo next to Highgate Cemetery (See: Lifestyles of the Dead and Famous) in England with a rule that they must live together for a year and their parents cannot set foot in this space. Elspeth had gone cougar crazy for Robert, who works at the cemetery and has the flat directly beneath her book-laden space. He is in serious mope-mode since her death, but takes emo solace in fondling the footwear that remains in her closet. The twins settle back into their roles of dominant (Julia) and submissive (Valentina) and after some electrical quirks and misplaced objects, realize Elspeth is haunting the pad. For realsies. Ouija Board convos and everything.
Valentina takes a shine for her dead aunt, spending hours on the couch talking around some big family secret while the young girl becomes more and more pale and Robert Smith-ian. In her spare time, she runs around the cemetery with Robert and they talk about her crippling virginity. Julia gets in a snit at this severed tie between the twins, and starts playing nursemaid to the upstairs neighbor, an OCD shut in whose loving wife has liberated herself from the covered windows, incessant counting, and intrusive routines that come with living with someone who takes three hour showers.
These characters are lovely: Valentina and Julia are perfectly creepy with their juvenile marriedness, and the obsessive compulsive Martin is so lovable with his ticks and fears and unrelenting devotion to his wife in Amsterdam. Robert is the loyal lover, torn by long term mourning or getting hot-pants with Elspeth’s niece, who looks a lot like her. And Elspeth, oh Elspeth. What a minx.
There is a problem when it comes time to pull the rug out, a choreography that Niffenegger doesn’t exactly do seamlessly. It’s a little clunky and lead-footed, but she gets her point across in a way that made me think “Hm. You could have blown my mind. But this is more like when a magician bumbles and you see the card up his sleeve before you see the trick.”
But overall, it is a satisfying novel with a good story. It’s no “woman in love with a man who travels through time,” but what is?