In this post from last week I talked about how “confabulated characters walk about in our heads with the authority of our own friends and relatives (Lionel Shriver, The Financial Times, Feb 26/27, 2011).” And when you know a character as well as you know your own sister (for example) and then she does something that you just know she would not do, it’s like a blast of cold air that interrupts and ultimately diminishes the whole reading experience. This was the experience I had with Her Fearful Symmetry.
Her Fearful Symmetry is the story of 20-something twins, Julia and Valentina, who inherit a flat in London from their late aunt Elspeth (who is the twin sister of their mother Edwina). Lots of baggage (literal and emotional) comes with the flat, including Elspeth’s lover Robert (who inhabits the flat downstairs) and Martin, the OCD-suffering neighbor from upstairs. Also Elspeth’s ghost, who is at first just a puff of air but eventually transforms herself into something quite a bit more powerful and possibly malevolent.
Julia and Valentina are shallow and self-absorbed. They spend a lot of time playing dress-up in Elspeth’s quirky outfits and wandering pointlessly around London. Robert is devastated by Elspeth’s death and Martin is crippled by his mental illness. No one is happy or even very functional. Despite my lukewarm feelings toward the characters, I found that the book contained enough intrigue and atmosphere to propel me along nicely, until I was yanked out of the story by a decision Valentina makes about ¾ of the way through. It ruined the whole rest of the book for me, and made everything that came afterwards seem forced and manipulative. I wish the author had chosen a different method for accomplishing her goals. Still, this is an interesting book about death and separation and all the ways in which people can be both together and apart, and maybe that plot twist won’t bother you as much as it bothered me.
The flat that Julia and Valentina inherit is in the London neighborhood of Highgate and backs up to Highgate cemetery. Many scenes take place in the cemetery: Elspeth is buried there, Robert works as a guide there, and is writing a history of it, and the twins walk there frequently. Highgate cemetery is a stunning example of the Victorians’ overblown sentimentality toward death and is filled with elaborate monuments to dead poets, and twisty paths through dense underbrush. It figures strongly in another book I liked a lot, Falling Angels, by Tracy Chevalier, and provides a satisfyingly creepy backdrop for a lot of the action in this book. A few years ago on a trip to London I dragged my friend Catherine with me to see Highgate cemetery, and I thought she might never forgive me – she found the Victorian excess deeply disturbing, but I loved it.
(Book 8, 2011)