The Magazine

Shades of James

A ghost story with a postmodern twist.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By THOMAS JOHNSON
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Her Fearful Symmetry

A Novel

by Audrey Niffenegger

Scribner, 416 pp., $26.99

The best praise that can be given to Audrey Niffenegger's first full-length novel since her debut, The Time Traveler's Wife (2003), is the same as the greatest criticism that can be made of it: It tries to do a great many things within and without the conventional boundaries of the supernatural genre, to which it belongs.

Niffenegger has written a ghost story that, like many others, features an eerie location and subtly manipulative relationships complicated by paranormal intrusion. While these tropes might have seemed stale in the hands of another writer, Niffenegger skillfully revitalizes them.

She also appears determined, paradoxically, to twist the genre's status quo while adhering to it. She attempts to provide the reader with a level of insight into the psyche of her central ghostly character--the likes of which her literary predecessors sometimes avoid--while struggling to maintain a shroud of mystery around the past actions of that ghost, as if hoping to tantalize the reader in the fashion of those predecessors. These goals, while admirable, are difficult to reconcile, and Niffenegger's attempts to do so through the employment of dishonest narrative tactics mar what is otherwise a powerful cautionary tale.

Symmetry submerges the reader in an atmosphere of gloom from its opening pages, in which the ghost-to-be Elspeth Noblin succumbs to leukemia, leaving behind a mourning lover, Robert--a tour-guide at London's Highgate Cemetery--a twin sister Edie, and a pair of 20-year-old twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. Though Elspeth has been estranged from Edie following a conflict 20 years prior, she bequeaths her flat, adjacent to the cemetery, to Julia and Valentina. They leave their Chicago home: Julia eager to experience London culture, Valentina nervous at the prospect of living on another continent and near a cemetery.

"[I]t's .  .  . like Henry James," she says.

This postmodern awareness (that Valentina and other characters possess) of the kind of story they are living out leads to a number of tongue-in-cheek cultural references that provide a contrast to Symmetry's darkest moments--although the humor is never so obtrusive as to shatter the suspension of disbelief. At the same time, the characters' close proximity to Highgate Cemetery--burial place of Karl Marx and George Eliot, among others
--and coldly elegant gravestones and mausoleums infuse the plot with a sense of wistfulness for a past age, strengthening the somber atmosphere in the aftermath of Elspeth's death.

Elspeth herself, however, is frustrated by her ghostly existence and desperately wants to reunite with Robert, who takes up with Valentina in her absence. Valentina, meanwhile, is anxious to escape from Julia's controlling grasp, a circumstance that Elspeth is increasingly willing to take advantage of. While these various struggles are occasionally melodramatic, Niffenegger smartly includes a subplot concerning Elspeth's neighbor Robert, an obsessive-compulsive whose long-distance relationship with his wife provides a calming contrast to the tumultuous associations among the main characters.

Yet even those bonds contain a measure of joy along with heartache. Julia and Valentina's relationship encapsulates this balance, oscillating between mutual affection and mutual resentment. Gradually, Niffenegger establishes these twins as characters in their own right, and as she does, the intimacy between them becomes as much a source of concern for the reader as a source of comfort. Julia is revealed to have an inordinate amount of control over her sister, who would have preferred to stay in college and establish her own identity. Julia is also largely motivated by a wish to protect Valentina, whose internal organs suffer from her being a "mirror twin," causing asthma and an irregular heartbeat. She is both admirable and maddening in the way that well-intentioned micromanagers can be.

Valentina is arguably more likeable than Julia: Her primal longing for independence easily earns sympathy. But the avenues that she eventually pursues in hope of achieving that independence diminish her likeability--and the believability of the plot. Though Niffenegger hints at an underlying depression as the motivation for Valentina's later actions, they seem slightly forced, as if the author had decided to disregard the plausibility of the character to heighten the dramatic stakes of the story.