Julia and Valentina, twenty-year-old American twins with a life-consuming attachment to one another, learn they have inherited the London flat of their aunt, Elspeth Noblin, after Elspeth dies from cancer. The girls have never met their aunt and Elspeth has banned the girls’ father and mother (her identical twin) from ever stepping foot in the apartment, but Julia is convinced this is the adventure the girls have been waiting for and drags Valentine, the much more cautious and quiet of the two, across the Atlantic to live in their aunt’s flat near Highgate Cemetery in London.
Once in London, the girls meet their aunt’s former neighbors: Martin, a man suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife who leaves him for a life apart in Amsterdam; and Robert, the former lover of Elspeth and tour guide in the cemetery. Julia grows close to Martin and becomes determined to “fix” him lying that the OCD medication she gives him is simply a daily vitamin while Valentina begins to fall in love with Robert as she struggles to extricate herself from her sister’s crippling embrace. Valentina longs to attend college or go to design school or do something with her life, but Julia finds such activities mundane and cannot imagine life without her sister by her side. (There is a long soliloquy where Julia says the girls are virgins because they cannot be apart from each other long enough to have sex.)
But the former resident of the flat has not vacated the premises, and Elspeth’s ghost haunts the apartment communicating with the twins, destroying their television by inserting herself into the unit, and detaching the soul of the kitten the twins find from its body. (Yes, really.) Desperate to escape from her sister, Valentina hatches a plan for Elspeth to detach herself from her body in order to set her free opening the door for her parents to finally step into the apartment and the separation of Elspeth and her twin sister over twenty years ago to finally be explained.
The moment I truly sat up and took notice of this book was when Elspeth accused Edwina of stealing her life in a letter sent to Edwina right after her sister’s passing. That ruptured relationship was touched upon during the rest of the novel but was never fully explained until the end when things had long past taken a turn into the bizarre and characters who never seemed to matter before take a central focus in the conclusion of the novel.
The story builds in a fascinating tale intertwining the stories of the different characters and exploring the parallels in the problems dominating their lives and, of course, the backstory into how the original twins became separated and allowed an unspoken, unexplained to keep them apart forever. But the logic of the decisions they make later on in the story did not jive with me; it seemed incompatible with the characters I had begun to know. I tried to accept the supernatural nature of the book and the lack of rules, but the blending of the present and the supernatural needed more structure for me to understand how the characters could so easily adapt to the way bodies and souls are traded between the characters.
Niffenegger’s ability to create intimate relationships and scenes is preserved in this novel, which is why I’m glad I pulled it off the shelf at the library, and I enjoyed Bianca Amato’s narration — her pace and even her voice were perfect for the novel. But I found myself reaching the end of the last CD and marveling over how quickly Niffenegger was attempting to wrap the story up and how little explanation she decided to supply in the end. Too many characters feel by the wayside; too many questions remained.
- Niffenegger, Audrey. Her Fearful Symmetry. Read by Bianca Amato. New York: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2009. Audiobook. 13 hours, 44 minutes. ISBN: 9780743599306. Source: Library.