Long before they see a ghost, the protagonists of Her Fearful Symmetry realize they’ve entered the realm of fairy tales and horror movies. The story begins with a plot so well-worn, The Flintstones and I Dream Of Jeannie used it: A relative dies, leaving her creepy estate to family members she’s never met, under the condition that they live there before they can collect the inheritance.
Niffenegger’s second novel uses that starting point for an otherwise original story about love and obsession. While her fiction debut, The Time Traveler’s Wife, switched between the perspectives of two main characters, Her Fearful Symmetry takes an omniscient view, delving into the thoughts and lives of all the residents of an apartment building bordering London’s Highgate Cemetery. There are the twins, Julia and Valentina, who have inherited their aunt Elspeth’s flat; one is obsessed with always staying together, the other with finding independence. Robert is obsessed with the loss of his lover. Martin suffers from crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder that traps him in his home, and Elspeth’s ghost just wants to be acknowledged by the living.
But even though Symmetry spreads the narrative across many characters, it never seems thin. Niffenegger spent time at Highgate researching and working as a guide. The result is a rich, detailed setting, though her attempts to share her knowledge with readers are far from seamless. The twins’ tour of the cemetery has little narrative purpose, for instance; it’s more like an information dump framed with dialogue.
While The Time Traveler’s Wife examines how otherwise normal lives can integrate fantastic elements, the characters in this novel remain fully immersed in what could easily be a Victorian horror story, if not for their modern ghost’s tendency to spell out “LOL” on a Ouija board. Niffenegger doesn’t seem interested in interrupting her storytelling with the daily grind, focusing on characters wealthy enough to spend their days exploring London, talking to ghosts, and struggling with philosophical quandaries about their identities, life, death and the future.
Mysteries and truths slowly unravel as the story progresses. The major plot resolves predictably, but its grim inevitability fits well with the genre, and a few more surprising twists produce an even more satisfying read than Niffenegger’s bestselling debut.