When I was younger, I always wanted to have a twin. Lazy me thought how easy it would be to have an instant best friend without having to make the effort of actually making friends. I don’t know any twin adults in person, all the twins I know are cute kiddos…so I never really thought that there could be serious emotional issues associated with twinship until I read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.
In this book, there are two sets of twins, so basically double the madness. The book begins when twins Julia and Valentina inherit a London flat from their Aunt Elspeth (whose existence they are unaware of) who is their mother’s identical twin. There are two conditions to their inheritance:
- They have to live in the flat for a least one year before they may sell it.
- Their parents are not allowed to set foot in the flat the year that they live there.
Julia, the more adventurous of the two, is eager to accept this new adventure. Although the more timid Valentina would rather stay home, go to college, and become a fashion designer, she cannot conceive of a life separate from her twin so she agrees to the move.
The flat borders Highgate Cemetary where their aunt is buried. They also have two neighbors – The flat above theirs is occupied by an obsessive compulsive man Martin who is struggling with his life alone after his wife leaves him. Robert, their neighbor below is their aunt’s lover who is grieving over her death but fighting his fledgling attraction to Valentina.
All too soon, their lives get intermingled when the twins realize that their aunt Elspeth is haunting their flat.
Although this story deals with a ghost, the primary plot point is the relationship between the twins – Valentina and Julia. Valentina is the weaker-willed of the two and ends up giving in to all Julia’s demands. She wants to build her own life, and basically cut the symbiotic relationship she shares with Julia. Julia is extremely unwilling to let her go, and this causes serious problems between them . These problems exacerbate when Valentina is attracted to Robert, and Julia turns possessive. The story then deals with how Valentina gets the freedom she wants.
My thoughts on this book:
I loved reading this book. The language is beautiful, and so is the character build up and scene setting. The story itself is where the book falls short. In some ways, Niffenegger is encroaching on Stephen King territory when she steps into the realm of the ghosts, and the issues of bringing back the dead to life. Stephen King is the master in this genre (Pet Semetary anyone?) and Niffenegger is kind of stumbling around here.
While she accurately brings a spooky tone to the book (isn’t foggy London a perfect setting for a ghost story?), some plot points were really amateurish. The problems faced by the twins were very basic, which could have been resolved rather easily…the solution Valentina resorts to is so bizarre, so extreme that the book lost any semblance of reality to me.
I think the point when the twins resort to a ouijja board to communicate with the ghost, and a dead kitten is brought back to life, and then killed again…that was when I realized that things were only going to go downhill from there. It’s a shame because the book had so much potential to be a really, really great book (think The Turn of the Screw) – a classic in this genre), now, it’s merely somewhere between middling to good.