The Book Junkie

            Her Fearful Symmetry is Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel. It is a well-crafted, interesting, and well-written story. It is also confusing and, in the end, disorienting. That may be the point. Her Fearful Symmetry is a story of ghosts, twins, and dysfunctional relationships that try to appear normal. It is a tale of existence; who does and doesn’t, how they determine which, and how that affects others. It’s hard to tell who the protagonist and antagonist are; the roles switch and meld so you can’t keep track. Again, this is likely the point; the characters’ identities are questionable, thus their roles must be as well.

            Julia and Valentina Poole are twins. So are their mother Edie and her sister Elspeth—unbeknownst to the younger twins. They’ve never met their aunt in their memory, and their mother and father never speak of her. It’s like she doesn’t exist. When Elspeth dies, Julia and Valentina inherit her flat in London. The only stipulations are that the girls must live in the flat for a year and that their parents may not set foot in it. When J & V move to London, they discover that all is not as they thought. First of all, Elspeth’s ghost is living with them. Second, Elspeth’s much younger lover Robert, who is also a neighbor, is avoiding them. Third, their upstairs neighbor Martin is both agoraphobic and obsessive-compulsive (which they discover when their ceiling springs a leak as a result of his scrubbing the same spot on the floor). To this intriguing cast of characters, add the fact that Julia and Valentina—whom Julia calls the Mouse, due to her timidity—are codependent and still dress alike at twenty. Valentina is the Mouse because Julia unkowingly bullies her. Julia believes that Valentina needs her protection from the world; it is Julia who insists on the matchy-matchy clothes and never going anywhere or doing anything separately from each other. Not surprisingly, this makes outside relationships difficult for both twins. Valentina would like to have a separate life from her sister, but never tells Julia. Julia never thinks to question whether her sister would like something different. This is ultimately where the story’s conflict comes from. Not from ghosts or strange neighbors, but the twins’ dependence and identity as twins and lack of identity as individuals.

            Once the girls realize that they’re living with a ghost, they try to make the most of it. At least, Valentina does. She learns to communicate with Elspeth; Julia tries, but isn’t as fascinated by Elspeth as Valentina. As Valentina’s relationship with Elspeth develops, Valentina gradually finds herself. She wants to escape Julia’s influence and finally live her own life. However, Valentina doesn’t realize that she’s not just finding her separate identity, she’s also losing herself. She comes to identify more with a ghost than with   herself. Julia, on the other hand, is more interested in maintaining the life she’s been living; she doesn’t want her relationship with Julia to change, she doesn’t want her own identity, and she doesn’t particularly want to get to know her aunt’s ghost. Julia likes to spend time exploring her new city and having new experiences, as long as they don’t stray far from her status quo of being a twin.

            Neither twin can completely do as they plan, though. Julia becomes friends with Martin and discovers that she can be friends with—and protect—someone other than her sister. Valentina, meanwhile, discovers the possibility of romance with Robert (weird, huh?) and the excitement of trying to escape her sister. Through their explorations of  themselves, their neighbors, and their own desires, the twins question both their individuality and their twinness. Ultimately, the question of which is the dominant trait drives Her Fearful Symmetry.

            Her Fearful Symmetry, like Niffenegger’s first novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, was fun to read. I can’t identify how I feel about it. I’m not sure if I came away happy or disappointed, and I don’t know if I liked the characters or hated them. But, since it’s a novel about questioning identity, that may be a good thing.

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