Review by Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick
Despite the onslaught of horror/romance crossovers that have plagued pop culture in the last few years (I’m looking at you, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and any other number of books and shows that feature beautiful people having sex with equally beautiful monsters), a really good ghost story has been hard to come by. A movement out of the corner of your eye, a creek that can’t be explained, the feeling that someone in your empty house is watching you—the market may be filled with sexy werewolves, but I was looking for something else to send a shiver up my spine. I picked up Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry in the hopes that, finally, I had found a ghost story worthy of nightmares.
21-year old twins Julia and Valentina have inherited a flat in London from their deceased aunt, who asks in her will that they live there for one year before selling it. Their aunt Elspeth is the estranged twin of their mother, Edie, and the girls have never met her, nor is she spoken about in their home. While at the flat, the twins gain the attention of their mysterious neighbors: Martin, a brilliant obsessive-compulsive who makes crossword puzzles and is pining for the wife who left him, and Robert, a cemetery historian and Elspeth’s lover who begins to take an interest in Valentina. The twins haven’t only caught the eye of the living, however; Elspeth has taken to haunting her flat and begins using Robert and the girls for a sinister purpose.
This is not a bad novel by any means, but rather a disappointing one. And the biggest disappointment isn’t what the novel does wrong, but rather what it does right. In fact, the novel does so much right that the ending comes as a letdown; I was left mourning for the book that could have been. There is nothing sadder to me than a novel with wasted potential, a good idea bogged down by pointless complications and unsatisfying conclusions. This novel doesn’t seem to realize how good it could be.
Her Fearful Symmetry is genuinely creepy in a way that has nothing to do with its supernatural elements. The ghosts are normal; the relationship between Julia and Valentina is not. Niffenegger is at her most compelling when she has forgotten that she has written a ghost story, and allows the uncomfortable closeness of the twins to take the spotlight. They dress exactly the same, they sleep together, and each is even unable to lose her virginity, knowing that the experience will bar her, even if only for a short time, from her twin. The girls are constantly oscillating between longing for this oppressive love and desperately trying to escape it, even if the only way out is death. This tension between the two, and their conflicting desires, permeates the entire tale, leaving readers with a constant feeling of uneasiness. As I was reading, I found myself, stomach clenched, waiting to see how far Niffenegger would allow their incestuous feelings towards one another to play out, both dreading and creepily intrigued by what seemed to be the only possible outcome.
But, that seemingly inevitable conclusion is never reached. Instead, we are given a lackluster ghost story that’s more boring than chills-inducing. Throw in a needlessly complicated and melodramatic eleventh-hour reveal and I found myself wishing Niffenegger would give up this ghost business once and for all. What could have been a chilling ending becomes almost an afterthought, lost amidst the general chaos of the second half of the book. The novel must decide whether it wants to be a ghost story or the tale of a group of eccentric, quietly desperate neighbors. It could have been passable with the former and maybe even fantastic with the latter, but its attempt at both falls flat.
Audrey Niffenegger is a visual artist and a guide at Highgate Cemetery. In addition to her bestselling debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, she is the author of two illustrated novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress. She lives in Chicago.