Audrey Niffenegger, the author of the best-selling The Time Traveler’s Wife ( Nov/Dec 2003) and two illustrated novels, once again explores the power of supernatural love in what critics generally consider a less-successful novel.
The Story: When Elspeth Noblin dies, she leaves her London flat to her estranged twin sister’s twin daughters in Chicago. The mirror-image Julia and Valentina, inseparable 20-year-old waifs with little interest in their own lives, move in to rooms overlooking Highgate Cemetery. Soon, they become entangled with the building’s other residents, including Robert, Elspeth’s younger former lover and a cemetery scholar; Martin, who suffers from OCD; and Martin’s estranged wife. Although the twins are haunted by various metaphorical ghosts—such as loneliness and identity crises—they don’t initially know that Elspeth’s restless, possessive ghost still haunts the flat.
Scribner. 416 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9781439165393
NY Times Book Review
"Niffenegger’s characters are selfish, messy, vulnerable and sometimes crazed, all under the attractive veneer of artistic and contemplative impulses. … This outing may not be as blindly romantic as The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it is mature, complex and convincing—a dreamy yet visceral tale of loves both familial and erotic, a search for Self in the midst of obsession with an Other." Susann Cokal
"Niffenegger’s writing can be wearyingly overblown, but she has a knack for taking the romantic into the realm of creepiness, and she constructs a taut mystery around the secrets to be found in Elspeth’s diaries and the lengths to which she will go to reunite with her younger lover. It’s no small achievement that the revelations are both organic and completely unexpected."
"For the first 300 pages, Her Fearful Symmetry has a quiet, almost academic elegance that is very charming in its fustiness. … Niffenegger began with a ghost story that had the melancholy elegance of James’ tree shadows. It is a pity that, by the end, she cannot quite refrain from letting the ghouls in." Rebecca Markovits
"While Niffenegger’s new novel misses the quality of astonishment and compulsive page-turning that Time Traveler brought, she successfully develops this larger cast. But the middle chapters meander, and the writing, while lovely, too often lacks the tension the story demands." Ann Allen
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"The ghost of Elspeth Noblin does not haunt or frighten anyone or add insight into the next life. By the end of the book, some of the ghostly logistics unravel, and the ending may leave readers wondering whether they are finishing the book they began." Susanna Bullock
New York Times
"Whereas The Time Traveler’s Wife simply used the premise of time travel as a device to look at a couple’s efforts to sustain their love through all sorts of trials and tribulations, Symmetry buys into the literary and cinematic ghost story genre whole hog, embracing all of its best-known traditions, no matter how hokey or contrived. … Although the reader is pleasantly carried along by the author’s ability to create credible characters and her instinctive narrative gifts, the novel lacks the emotional depth of its predecessor." Michiko Kakutani
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"The only figure to act believably is the ghost—and readers who love ghost stories will be well pleased with Elspeth. … Could Niffenegger pull it off? Unfortunately, no." Sarah Willis
Critics didn’t express high hopes for Niffenegger’s second novel—a ghost story, mystery, and love story combined into one. Nonetheless, comparisons to the acclaimed Time Traveler’s Wife prevailed. Certain similarities exist, including themes of the elusive nature of love, loss, obsession, and time. However, that’s where the likenesses end. While a few reviewers cited the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry as compassionate, if self-absorbed, creations, others called them emotionally distant and unconvincing. Differences also existed with respect to the believability of the subplots—buried secrets, cases of mistaken identities, and ghostly appearances. Yet if Niffenegger’s latest novel doesn’t quite live up to her previous one, readers willing to fully suspend their disbelief will embrace this evocative, at times compelling, ghost story.