Audrey Niffenegger skyrocketed into literary prominence with the publication of The Time-Traveler’s Wife, which was the the debut novel for this middle-aged artist and teacher. She is not, as you might imagine, a conventional literary rockstar, but her name graced a lot of tongues for a lot of years.
Niffenegger was criticized by some for an unimpressive writing style—Michelle Griffin of The Age called her writing “pedestrian,” which I think just about hits the mark—but it was difficult to spend any time appreciating Niffenegger’s lack or surfeit of rhetorical flair when the novel itself was so damned interesting. It was, after all, little more than a love story with contrived love story emotions. But that little soupçon of science fictional intrigue turned something “pedestrian” into one of the most compelling pieces of fiction in recent years.
Because of the explosive popularity of The Time Traveler’s Wife, just about every publisher in the world—including, I imagine, the 25 or so that rejected her first manuscript—wanted to secure rights to her sophomore effort, Her Fearful Symmetry. I approached the book with some trepidation; knowing the singular character of her first book, would I be able to appreciate this new one for its own merits? Could Niffenegger once again create a story so compelling it makes her readers forget that her talent as a writer (as distinct from a creator of plots or characters) is only slightly better than average?
The rest of this review may contains spoilers which would otherwise become known to readers during the first ≈25% of the book. If this is too much information for you, please stop reading here.
Her Fearful Symmetry takes the same approach to genre that its predecessor did: it is 90% character drama, but enlivened with a touch of the fantastic. More to the point, it is a ghost story, and not in the sense that the characters somehow timidly interact with an inscrutable supernatural being, but neither is it quite in the vein of The Sixth Sense, with humanoid spirits who can clearly communicate. The ghost, in fact, is that of Elspeth Noblin, who dies in the first chapter (appropriately titled “The End”) at age 44, and who comes to haunt her two nieces, Valentina and Julia, whom she has contrived in her will to bring to London to live in her flat for a year.
The apartment building that Elspeth, and now the twins, inhabit, tends to be a bit of a sitcom trope, as if pulled from the archival material of Seinfeld. Below the twins is Robert Fanshaw, Elspeth’s slightly younger lover; above them is Martin and Marijke, the former a crossword-writing genius with somewhat severe OCD, and the latter his patient Dutch wife who eventually leaves him and returns to Amsterdam. The building itself borders the Highgate Cemetery, the final resting places of ≈168,000 bodies, some of them famous (Karl Marx, &c.).
As near as I can tell, so many of these plot elements serve as little more than parsley to the main course: the cemetery, where Robert is a tour guide, has no real narrative importance, but seeks all the while to underscore the historicity of the locale and the paradoxically entertaining solemnity of death. Martin, though he has some level of interaction with the twins, seems all the while like a story within a story. The same cannot be said of Robert, who while still pining for Elspeth manages to fall in love with young Valentina, who is apparently a dead ringer for dead aunt. Thus begins a sort of strange love-hate triangle between Valentina, who desperately wants to be free of her sister, Julia, who desperately wants to be free of Robert so she can keep her sister to herself, and Robert, who somewhat creepily lusts after Valentina so shortly after masturbating while stroking Elspeth’s shoe collection. It is, as I imagine Niffenegger’s graphic novel Three Incestuous Sister to be, an emotional and narrative clusterfuck.
What is disappointing about all this is how Niffenegger has to force all of these events to happen. In The Time Traveler’s Wife, she simply offers a conundrum (a man who involuntarily time travels) and two characters, and the story seems to happen largely by itself, fantastical as it may be. In Her Fearful Symmetry, on the other hand, we must first accept that Julia and Valentina are twins of a consummate sort: they are mirror twins, who are not only identical but completely symmetric; Julia’s heart is on the left side of her chest, while Valentina’s is on the right. They appear to spend every waking moment together, and are so closely enjoined emotionally that they have abstained from sex largely because it isn’t something they can do together1. Not knowing much about twin culture, I found the twins as characters somewhat hard to swallow; while Julia was dominant and Valentina submissive, they seemed to efface each others’ personalities. Perhaps this was Niffenegger’s point, since there was a subtheme of the struggle for identity.
But Valentina’s sudden lust for Robert, her sudden “hate” for Julia, Martin’s predictable progression…. none of these things felt as though they arose naturally out of the narrative stew. They felt like constructs by the author, placed artificially in this diorama of Seinfield-on-Highgate. Even the most interesting character, Elspeth’s ghost, is rendered somewhat boring by her eventual ability to communicate with the twins and Robert through an ad hoc Ouija board. The contextual hints would seem to indicate that Elspeth is, if not downright evil, than at least too crafty to be entirely trusted, but Niffenegger’s narration of her doesn’t seem to illustrate this. The untold secrets that the author presents to us even early on—such as the reason that Elspeth and her twin (Julia and Valentina’s mother) Edwina haven’t seen each other in 20 years, or why Elspeth gave her flat to the twins—are either never explained or revealed to be unimpressive non-issues.
Perhaps the only intriguing part is that of Elspeth’s motivations, as they remain the only issue unresolved by the end, where Niffenegger attempts to tie up most of the loose ends in a rather desultory fashion, either with predictable and unexceptional resolutions or bizarre half-endings, the details of which would reveal too much about the plot. One may ultimately come to question the extent and meaning of Elspeth’s actions, but I, upon being faced with the question of how much Elspeth had executed according to plan and how much was accidental as per Niffenegger’s narration, decided that the question was moot. In the same way that the mysteries we’re supposed to care so much about solving end up as mere sidenotes to the postmodern Romeo and Juliet plot, so too do broader questions about Elspeth—who becomes, I think, the central thematic character—get dashed to pieces by the realization that the answers won’t substantially change the reading.
I mentioned before that I agree with characterizations of Niffenegger’s writing as “pedestrian.” Either because I was paying more attention during Her Fearful Symmetry or because her writing was sloppier, I noticed that Niffenegger favors short, S-V-O sentences, which gives her prose a halting, terse sort of feeling.
That night the twins lay in Julia’s bed, facing each other. Valentina’s bed was rumpled but unused. Their feet were touching. The twins smelled faintly of sea kelp and something sweet; they were trying out a new body lotion. They could hear the settling noises their house made in the night. Their bedroom was dimply illuminated by the blue Hanukkah lights they had strung around the wrought-iron headboard of their bed.
Far be it from me to say that good writing must necessarily contain only compound-complex sentences and elaborate rhetorical devices, but it strikes me that there must be a better way to write the above passage, even if only replacing a few of the periods with semicolons. But the passage also illustrates what I think is another important factor in Niffenegger’s writing, which is her emphasis on the sensory—especially the visual. Remember that she is an artist first and an author second, and her reliance on tableaux over plot is even more obvious in this book than in her previous one.
Robert imagined the receiver sitting on Marijke’s desk like a marooned insect. He imagine Marijke walking towards it, her plain, gently creased face, her tired green eyes, her mouth red with too-bright lipstick and tense at the corners, seldom quite smiling. Robert pictured her in an orange jumper she used to wear for days at a time every winter. Marijke’s fingers were never still, always holding a cigarette or a pen, picking at imaginary lint on someone’s collar, fiddling with her limp hair. She drove Robert crazy with her fidgeting.
The book is brimming with passages like that, which both illustrate the author’s tendency for visual description and underscore her need to use more pronouns. The devices of the plot this time, however, don’t allow Niffenegger to simply fill her invention with a lot of this kind of exposition and let it move itself. Her choice of plot was not as brilliant or surprising or wonderful as it was last time. As much of a shame as it is to critique her work based on her previous offering2, I feel it necessary to point out that Niffenegger’s real talent is for invention, and suffice it to say her invention of Her Fearful Symmetry was a somewhat disappointing one.
Let not that criticism stop you from reading the novel, however. Certainly, her prose is not stultifying or bad; her characters are not stock or static (well, most of them aren’t); her plot is not elementary. I admit that despite the rather tenuous narrative that held this ensemble piece together, I was nonetheless drawn in, and finished the book within a day. This very datum should, I think, recommend the book well enough to anyone even remotely interested in reading it.
- Niffenegger included a whole chapter on the twins’ virginity and the reasons for it. To her credit, she doesn’t include the threesome with Robert that the chapter seemed to foreshadow.[↩]
- For what it’s worth, this is a habit that I, along with most other critics resort to far too often; we should avoid it, though, because it’s a cheap and unsatisfactory sort of criticism.[↩]