Having a mega-bestselling debut novel is a wonderful and dangerous thing; it scores you legions of fans, glowing reviews and no doubt, a nice sum in your bank account. But then comes the heavy burden of repeating that success with the follow up novel.
Enter Audrey Niffenegger. Her first novel, The Time Travellers Wife, was adored by millions of fans worldwide – myself included – for its unique storyline and touching romance. Her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, has been hotly anticipated, but does this ghoulish story live up to expectations?
Valentina and Julia are mirror image twins; identical but opposite in appearance and more importantly in personality; Julia is domineering and forthright especially over her meek and mousey younger sister Valentina. When their mystifying (and previously unknown) Aunt Elspeth passes away, the two Chicago sisters inherit her flat next door to Highgate Cemetery in London. Both see England as a chance for a new beginning but while Julia sees an opportunity for the twins to cocoon together even more and create a separate existence from the rest of the world, Valentina yearns for a fashion career, love, children and most importantly independence – a life separate from her twin.
Initially unknown to the girls, their Highgate apartment is haunted by the ghost of the aunt they never know. But in Elspeth Valentina finds a kindred soul who understands the intricacies of twinship and the internal pressures it brings. Together, the two concoct a cunning and dangerous plan to separate Julia and Valentina forever.
For all its interesting premise, it is a slow moving novel that took a good 70 pages to grip me. But it was worth the perseverance. The detail of history into Highgate cemetery is rich and delightful, showing Niffenegger’s obvious love for, and knowledge of the place. As the story slowly wend it’s way I found myself constantly re-evaluating my feelings for the characters; the twins, Elspeth, her lover Robert who begins an improper affair with Valentina and the light relief character of Martin, the upstairs crossword creating neighbour with obsessive compulsive disorder. But they were not always the most likeable of characters, revealing wickedness and weakness in equal measure and the treachery of the twists they created left me staggered; I am still thinking about them and what they revealed several days later.
So, did Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger live up to expectations? Well yes and no. It is without doubt a skilfully written novel; it’s interesting and at times captivating. But sadly, it is no Time Traveller’s Wife. While it certainly has drama and originality, it lacked the emotional pull, romance and intensity of its predecessor. A good read, just don’t expect to fall in love with it.