I really enjoyed Audrey Niffeneger’s first book, The Time Traveller’s Wife, so much so that I named it my favorite book that I read in 2006. So it’s kind of surprising to even me that it took me so long to got around to picking up her sophomore novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which tells the story of two (almost) identical twins who inherit a London flat haunted by their aunt’s ghost. No, seriously. Unfortunately this book isn’t nearly as good, mainly because it tosses about as much drama, weird plot twists, and inexplicable behavior as a daytime soap opera.
To be fair, The Time Traveller’s Wife did a lot of this as well. The marriage on display in that book is maudlin and overwraught, with gushing emotions and breathless dialog more suited to a romance novel. But I enjoyed The Time Traveller’s Wife DESPITE all that, because Neffiniger did such an awesome job twisting the time travel threads around the lives of these people. But Her Fearful Symmetry has no such hook, and what we’re mostly left with is some heavy handed themes about freedom and identity. Julie and Valentina, the two aforementioned twins in their early twenties, move from America to London to fulfil the inheratance requirements of their aunt’s will. Their aunt and mother happen to also be identical twins, but are estranged for some reason that’s not revealed until late in the book, by which point it’s actually both hysterically stupid and contrived. Their aunt’s ghost is haunting the apartment where the twins live, and they are also visited by their aunt’s long-time lover Robert, who lives downstairs. In a particularly icky plot line, Robert falls for Valentina, which is a little skeezy when you think about the substantial age difference, really skeezy when you consider that Robert and Valentina are for all intents and purposes uncle and niece by marriage, and super skeezy when it becomes apparent that Robert is only interested in her because she’s the spitting image of her aunt. Who, you know, is watching all this happen as a ghost. And encouraging it.
So yeah, it’s kind of crazy. I get the feeling that Niffeneger was trying to write some kind of romantic thriller, what with all the vulnerable girls, twins, coming of age, rocking the cradle, weird sex, and death. The plot reaches a climax with a series of decisions that no rational person –even an immature girl– would pursue, and which no reasonable adult would condone much less participate in. I actually thought that the author had done something mind blowing with this when it seemed that her characters had more nefarious intentions than we had thought, but she backs down from that twist in the next chapter. Niffeneger had a plot to wind, so there we went. Like I said, the rapid fire series of reveals, twists, and betrayals made me think that I was watching an episode of Guiding Light written by Stephen King.
So if I were to recommend one of Niffeneger’s books, it would still definitely be The Time Traveller’s Wife. It’s much better and has a better hook.