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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger wrote the highly praised novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, which was recently turned into a movie starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams (who I just love- so talented!). Her newest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry has just been published, making it a good couple of months for Ms. Niffenegger.

The story begins in London, where Elspeth Noblin has just died of cancer. Her younger lover Robert is devastated by her death. Robert lives in an apartment in the same house as Elspeth, located on the edge of the grounds of the famous Highgate Cemetery.

Also living in the house are married couple Marijke and Martin. Martin has OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) so severely disabling that he cannot leave his apartment. Martin and Marijke are fascinating characters, and their relationship is fractured by Martin's illness. The author skillfully brings the reader into their struggle to live lives defined by mental illness.

Elspeth left her apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, daughters of her own twin sister. Elspeth has not seen her nieces since they were young children, for mysterious reasons that are revealed later in the novel.

Julia and Valentina are unusually close sisters, even for twins. Their relationship is overly dependent on each other, perhaps to the point of dysfunction.

It was a delicate thing, their private world. It required absolute fidelity, and so they remained virgins and waited.

Other people start to infiltrate this private world, in the form of a love interest for Valentina. Julia has always cared for her asthmatic sister, and Valentina's desire for more independence panics Julia.

A ghost also drives a wedge between the sisters. Valentina can feel the presence of the ghost more deeply than Julia. When the ghost reveals its presence to the girls, Julia compares it to being "like the sheep at Jesus' birth". It's an interesting comparison, foreshadowing the ghost's plan to rise from the dead.

Niffenegger weaves a magical spell in this beautiful novel. Her characters are complex, painted with shades of grey, matching the grey atmosphere of the cemetery in rainy London. The ghost story is intriguing, so different from other ghost stories in the way that the reader steps into the lonely life of a ghost.

The denoument of the story is heartbreaking. This is a novel that takes the reader on a remarkable journey, filled with secrets, love, sisterhood, loneliness, and the desire to live. I found myself thinking deeply about this haunting ghost story long after I finished it, a sure sign of a successful book.

Rating 4 of 5 stars