Wednesday, June 5, 2013

HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

Julia and Valentina are 20-year-old identical twins, living in the U.S., when their mother's identical twin Elspeth bequeaths her estate to the girls.  One contingency of the will is that they have to move into their aunt's London flat.  The girls become friends with three inhabitants of the building:  Martin, whose beloved wife has left him because of his severe OCD; Robert, who was Elspeth's lover; and Elspeth's ghost, who is trapped in her old flat.  Robert and the girls communicate with Elspeth via a homemade Ouija board, and Valentina discovers that Elspeth has useful powers beyond just moving lightweight objects around.  This is where the novel becomes, not just dark, but downright macabre.  Valentina is anxious to sever her bond with the overbearing Julia so that she can lead the life she chooses.  To that end, she hatches a plan with Elspeth that is more dicey than the situation warrants.  I know that Valentina is supposed to be very na├»ve, but we all know that faking your own death has a tendency to backfire in the worst way.  After all, Juliet did the same thing to be with Romeo, and that didn't turn out so well.  In addition to this dying-and-coming-back-to-life parallel, the ghosts, the double sets of twins, and the swapped identities made the plot seem to me to be an attempted mimicking of  Shakespeare that didn't quite work.  I wanted to care about these people, and the only character who aroused my sympathy was Martin, whose unfounded fears are destroying his life and for whom each step toward a sane existence is major victory.  Oh, yeah, mental illness shows up quite a bit in Shakepeare's works, too.

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