Saturday, December 12, 2009
When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers -- with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. The girls move to Elspeth's flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building's other residents.
There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin's devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth's elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt's neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including -- perhaps -- their aunt, who can't seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.
Niffenegger weaves a captivating story in Her Fearful Symmetry about love and identity, about secrets and sisterhood, and about the tenacity of life -- even after death.
Symmetry. Cemetery. Symmetry. Cemetery. Highgate Cemetery in London is the backdrop of this disturbing yet compelling drama involving life after death and the spiritual bonds between twins. In addition, it brings up the question of resurrection - is it possible? And that age old adage - "be careful for what you wish for, you just might get it."
The above synopsis is pretty accurate of the plotline. I liked the book, but if you're thinking this is going to be like The Time Traveler's Wife - the author's previous book, forget it - it's not even remotely similar. The writing and characterizations are well done, but this is not a love story, it's more of a cautionary tale. Most of the characters in this book experience the sense of being trapped, whether it's self imposed or involuntary. The common thread throughout the book is getting oneself out of the trap and to what lengths must one go, to do it.
The story revolves around the death of Elspeth Noblin. Her lover, Robert is devastated and mourns her passing. Before she died, she told him that she was leaving her flat in London to her two nieces - twins from Chicago. The twins come to London and they are strange girls. They have flaxen blonde hair, dress the same way (though they are 21 years old), sleep together in the same bed, eat the same things and look like they're about 12 years old - they're odd. Plus, I just didn't like them very much because of their oddity. Nothing about them was appealing to me. It's like they were joined at the hip and their voices were flat and they sounded like annoying teenagers. While living in the apartment, which happens to look over Highgate Cemetery where Elspeth is buried in the family crypt, they get to know Elspeth's neighbors, primarily Martin who lives upstairs and has OCD, he cannot leave his flat due to his disease. Robert, their neighbor below, still suffers from losing his lover, Elspeth.
I can't say I really liked any of the women in this book, with the exception of Martin's wife, Marijka, who leaves her husband, Martin, because she cannot live with him anymore and his OCD behavior. She is Dutch and moves back to her native Amsterdam, escaping from the trap of the apartment and his constant cleaning and counting. She still cares for him, but has given up, she must get out for her peace of mind, she cannot continue this way with her life. She is strong and takes the initiative. They talk on the phone occasionally, one "dinner date" they had was especially poignant. I enjoyed Martin and Marijka's story. It was my favorite part of the book, even though it was a sideline.
The other married couple we meet, Edie and Jack in Chicago, is very different. Their life is portrayed as your typical sort of mundane American existence. Trapped in suburbia. There was one mention of Edie listening to audiobooks while doing her needlepoint while Jack surfs the internet in another room - eek! That's sound just like me! A little too close to home! Little do we know, there is more to their marriage that is part of the big, bad, dark secret beween Edie and Elspeth that led to their falling out 20 years earlier. What was the big secret that involved Jack who we learn dated both of them?
Edie and Elspeth are not likable, plus there is this deep dark secret about them. Twins themselves, you can't help but compare them to the other twins, Valentina and Julia, who are just as unlikable. I kept trying to think, which one was their counterpart. Both sets of twins are similar to each other and both make damning mistakes in their lives that will change them forever.
Robert's story is more complicated and mixed up with the twins. The twins resemble their aunt Elspeth very much. Robert misses Elspeth and avoids meeting the twins at first, he just doesn't think he can handle it - so he follows them around London without their knowing who he is. Robert is lost. He still functions, yet, he's fumbling along, not sure what to do with his life or what he wants. Once they meet, he warms to Valentina and begins to date her. "Mouse", as her sister, Julia (the bossy one) calls her is meek and has let Julia boss her around all her life. She is also sickly and has asthma, she's the weaker of the two - or rather is seems that way at first. She feels trapped and under Julia's thumb. Julia is used to taking care of Valentina and wants to keep it that way.
Then we have Elspeth's point of view in the story. After she dies, she returns to her flat as a ghost. She's stuck there and cannot leave it. She is literally trapped. At first she can barely do anything except float around, but soon she is able to move objects and once the twins move in, she is able to eventually make herself known to them - and Robert. She is friendly, not a scary ghost or anything. She's herself, but just stuck in the flat, bored and dying for conversation. She'd love to get out and about if she could. Robert, naturally is fixated with her ghost at first, using a makeshift OUIJA board and automatic writing to communicate with her. It's an unatural relationship obviously, but neither is willing to end it. Their predicaments are similar, yet Robert has a way of getting out of his rut, but chooses the wrong path. He's trapped due to his own weakness. I wasn't crazy about Robert, at times he was just so malleable he needed to stand up for himself. Another weird thing about Elspeth's ghost was the twins didn't seem to mind the fact that Elspeth could see and hear them in the flat all the time. The twins, being twins, didn't seem to miss their privacy at all. I would have been freaked out! I would have stayed out of the apartment as much as possible! Another reason why I didn't like the portrayal of the twins - so bizarre!
Meanwhile, the twins are having relationship problems. It's as if they are married, and Valentina wants a divorce. She doesn't want to do everything Julia wants to do anymore, she wants her own life and go to design school. After seeing what happened to their pet cat, she gets the crazy idea of "dying" with Elspeth's help and then having Elspeth resurrect her. It's complicated and completely ridiculous and asinine and I thought the book took a turn for the worse with this change in the plotline. Plus, it was just creepy. In addition, the revelation of the big bad dark secret between Elspeth and her sister, Edie also made me doubt whether I liked this book or not. Still, despite the outlandishness of it all, I had to see it out to the end. I needed to finish it up and see how this bizarre story would wind up. I guessed it pretty much, but it did have a touch of irony about it. Let's just say, everyone gets what they deserve at the end, and I wound up appreciating it for it's originality, even though I disliked the majority of the characters in it. If I hadn't read The Time Traveler's Wife, I probably never would have given this book a second look.
I listened to this on audio and really liked the narrator, Bianca Amato. I can recommend it. She did a great job with all the accents - American for the twins and their mother in Chicago, and then the British accents, mostly the men, Martin and Robert, and she was very good at Marijka's Dutch accent. She made me really like Martin, despite his OCD tendencies of the contant washing and fear of leaving his apartment. He was urbane, charming, interesting! Robert was more needy and pliant, completely under the thumb of Elspeth, in real life and in her ghostly form. All the characters had their foibles and were kind of messed up in some way, except for the elderly couple that ran the cemetery that were friends and confidantes of Robert's.
The question of resurrection with Valentina's decision to die, and the outcome of their plan brings up some questions. Is sacrificing a human life worth it, if you can resurrect another? And how do you live with yourself if you're involved in some kind of scheme to carry it out? Is it murder? Is it suicide? What is is? Another issue is the miracle of twins - do twins really have some kind of spiritual bond between them? Can this bond be a trap, or more like a gift? I read over and over in books about this connection - does it really exist? Is anyone out there a twin that can attest to it? To be honest, I'm getting a little tired of these "twins" stories that I've read in the past two years. It's getting old.
But, despite all my questions and criticisms, I recommend this book if you're looking for a well written, different, macabre, thoughtful sort of tale. It's quirky with interesting characters and a well developed storyline. I even learned a little about Highgate Cemetery to boot. Cemeteries - the ultimate trap in the end, isn't it? Give it a try if you're in the mood.