Her Fearful Symmetry
Audrey Niffenegger, 2009
Simon & Schuster
When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers—with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another.
The girls move to Elspeth's flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building's other residents. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin's devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth's elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt's neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including—perhaps—their aunt, who can't seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.
Niffenegger weaves a captivating story in Her Fearful Symmetry about love and identity, about secrets and sisterhood, and about the tenacity of life—even after death. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—June 13, 1963
• Where—South Haven, Michigan, USA
• Education—B.F.A., School of the Art Institute of Chicago;
M.F.A., Northwestern University
• Awards—Ragdale Foundation Fellowships
• Currently—lives in Chicago, Illinois
Audrey Niffenegger is a professor in the M.F.A. program at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts.
The Time Traveler's Wife, her first novel, was published in 2004. In 2005, she published an illustrated story: Three Incestuous Sisters. Her Fearful Symmetry is Niffenegger's third book. Niffenegger lives in Chicago. (Adapted from the publisher.)
In her book Three Incestuous Sisters, Audrey Niffenegger tells the tale of a trio of sisters, each with her own special trait. There is blond Bettine, the beautiful one, blue-haired Ophile, the smart one, and then there's Clothilde. While hardly unintelligent and certainly not unattractive, it is still probably no coincidence that Niffenegger decided to cast her fellow redhead Clothilde as the talented one considering that she is so abundant in talent. A gifted illustrator and writer, Niffenegger is parlaying her quirky imagination into one of the most interesting bodies of work in contemporary literature.
Niffenegger's love of writing developed when she was a young girl, quietly spending her time writing and illustrating books as a hobby. Her wonderfully eccentric imaginativeness was in play from her earliest writing efforts. "My ‘first' novel was an epic about an imaginary road trip [sic] I went on with The Beatles," she explains on her website, "handwritten in turquoise marker, seventy pages long, which I wrote and illustrated when I was eleven."
Niffenegger's mini-magical mystery tour may have been her "first novel," but the first one to which the rest of the world would be privy came many years later. She had already established herself as a prominent artist whose work had been shown in the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Library of Congress, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University when The Time Traveler's Wife was published in 2003. "I wanted to write about a perfect marriage that is tested by something outside the control of the couple," Niffenegger told bookbrowse.com. "The title came to me out of the blue, and from the title sprang the characters, and from the characters came the story."
The Time Traveler's Wife, a sci-fi romance about the mercurial time traveler Henry and Clare, the wife who patiently awaits his return to the present, became a sensation upon its publication. This thoroughly original love story captured mass praise from USA Today, the Washington Post, People Magazine, and the Denver Post, not to mention celebrity couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, who promptly purchased the rights to the book and are currently developing it into a motion picture.
Now that she had established herself as a talent to watch, Niffenegger finally had the opportunity to produce a book she would describe as "a fourteen-year labor of love." Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel, is a gorgeous, modern-gothic storybook about the love and rivalry shared between three women. With its minimal text, Niffenegger's chiefly uses her eerie illustrations to convey the sisters' story. Booklist summed up Three Incestuous Sisters quite succinctly by stating that "Niffenegger's grim yet erotic tale and stunningly moody gothic prints possess the sly subversion of Edward Gorey, the emotional valence of Edvard Munch, and her very own brilliant use of iconographic pattern, surprising perspective, and tensile line in the service of a delectable, otherworldly sensibility."
In her third work, Niffenegger turned her attentions back to straight prose: Her Fearful Symmetry. "It's set in London's Highgate Cemetery, and features as many of the cliches of 19th century fiction as I can summon," she said in an interview with the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis. Amazingly, with such a wide variety of styles in her still budding body of work — from science fiction to fairy tale to her impending period piece — Audrey Niffenegger's books still share a strong sense of unity, a distinctly peculiar and particular vision. "The thing that unites all my work is narrative," she said on her website. "I'm interested in telling stories, and I'm interested in creating a world that's recognizable to us as ours, but is filled with strangeness and slight changes in the rules of the universe." (From Barnes & Noble.)
From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview:
• My current job is teaching graduate students how to write, print type on letterpresses, and create limited-edition books by hand. I work for Columbia College's Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago. I helped to found the Center, and it is the center of my universe nine months of the year. The other three months I try to ignore the phone, and I do my own work.
• I make art. Readers can see some of it at Printworks Gallery in Chicago. They have a web site: printworkschicago.com.
• Almost all of the places mentioned in my book are real places that you can visit. The Newberry Library is open to people who have research projects that fit the collections of the Newberry. Vintage Vinyl is a real record store in Evanston. The Aragon Ballroom, South Haven, Michigan, Bookman's Alley, The Berghoff — I heartily recommend them all.
• I collect taxidermy, skeletons, books (of course), comics (mostly Raw and post-Raw independent stuff, no superheroes). I only collect small taxidermy, no bison heads, my place isn't that big. I don't own a TV. I spend a lot of time hanging out with my boyfriend, Christopher Schneberger, and attending Avocet concerts (Avocet is the band Chris plays drums with). We travel a lot; my new book is set in London, so there's lots of research to do. I garden, in a rather haphazard way. I also enjoy finding, buying, and wearing vintage clothes. All in all, it's a pleasant life. ("More" and "Extras" from Barnes & Noble.)
The endurance of love animates this gothic story set in and around Highgate Cemetery, in London. When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her estate, including an apartment overlooking the graveyard, to the twin daughters of her twin sister, from whom she has been estranged for twenty years. When Valentina and Julia show up to claim their inheritance, they soon discover that Elspeth is still in residence, in ghostly form. 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.
The New Yorker
Niffenegger follows up her spectacular The Time Traveler's Wife with a beautifully written if incoherent ghost story. When Elspeth Noblin dies, she leaves everything to the 20-year-old American twin daughters of her own long-estranged twin, Edie. Valentina and Julia, as enmeshed as Elspeth and Edie once were, move into Elspeth's London flat bordering Highgate Cemetery in a building occupied by Elspeth's lover, Robert, and the novel's most interesting character, Martin, whose wife is long suffering due to his crushing and beautifully portrayed OCD. The girls are pallid and incurious; they wander around London and spend time with Robert and Martin and Elspeth's ghost. Valentina's developing relationship with Robert arouses mild jealousy, and when Valentina pursues her interest in fashion design, Julia disapproves, which leads Valentina and Elspeth to concoct an extreme plan to allow Valentina to lead her own life. The plan, unsurprisingly, goes awry, followed by weakly foreshadowed and confusing twists that take the plot from dull to silly. While Niffenegger's gifted prose and past success will garner readers, the story is a disappointment.
Twin sisters inherit a London flat, and a bundle of baggage, from their mother's long-estranged twin. Elspeth has expired at 44 of cancer, leaving her younger lover and neighbor Robert bereft and obsessed with her memory. Robert is entrusted with her diaries and named executor of her will, which bequeaths her flat and substantial cash reserves to her 20-year-old twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. Elspeth's twin sister Edie and her husband Jack, a Chicago banker, receive nothing and are expressly forbidden to visit the flat. Presumably, Elspeth's hostility stems from the fact that, 20 years before, Edie had eloped with Jack, then Elspeth's fiance, and fled with him to Chicago. When the girls move to London, their own sibling rivalry escalates. Julia dominates minutes-younger Valentina, forcing her to share a life of indolence rather than pursue her ambition to be a fashion designer. Robert, a perennial doctorate candidate writing his thesis on the historic 19th-century cemetery Highgate, is intimately familiar with all manner of Victorian morbidity, including the extreme measures taken to avoid being buried alive. Robert introduces the twins to the all-volunteer staff of Highgate, where many luminaries, including Karl Marx and George Eliot, are buried. Valentina is drawn to Robert, who finds her resemblance to Elspeth uncanny, unnerving and ultimately irresistible. Julia befriends upstairs neighbor Martin, an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose wife, finally fed up with his draconian rituals, has just left him. Meanwhile, Elspeth has returned to her former flat, training her ghostly self to communicate with the occupants. Only Valentina can see her, and she enlists her aunt's aid ingetting free of Julia. The manner in which Elspeth accomplishes Valentina's liberation, and the mind-boggling double cross revealed in the diaries, are breathtakingly far-fetched. Gimmickry, supernatural and otherwise, blunts what could have been an incisive inquiry into the mysteries and frustrations of too-close kinship from the talented Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife, 2003, etc.).
1. Just as she did with time travel in The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger made the bold choice to center the story in Her Fearful Symmetry around a fantastical subject: ghosts. How does Niffenegger strive to make this supernatural occurrence believable in the novel? Do you think she succeeds? Why do you think Niffenegger is attracted to subjects like time travel and ghosts?
2. The book opens with Elspeth's death. Why might this be significant? In Chicago, why is Jack "relieved" when he hears that Elsepth has died? How do Jack's feelings for Elspeth foreshadow events later in the novel?
3. The narrator, in describing the physical appearance of Julia and Valentina, remarks that the twins "might have been cast as Victorian orphans in a made for TV movie." How do the twins appear to the outside world? Why do you think Niffenegger decided to make them beautiful but fragile— "like dandelions gone to seed?"
4. Before she dies, Elspeth tries to explain to Robert the nature of her relationship with Edie. Elspeth says, "All I can say is, you haven't got a twin, so you can't know how it is." How does Niffenegger depict the bonds between the two sets of twins in the novel? Compare and contrast the relationships between Elspeth and Edie and between Julia and Valentina.
5. In what ways does Valentina live up to her nickname, "Mouse," and in what ways do her actions in the novel contradict it?
6. As she observes Elspeth's funeral procession, Marijke muses that the cemetery is like "an old theater." What does she mean? How does Highgate Cemetery come to function like a character in Her Fearful Symmetry?
7. Martin is an unusual person: a translator of obscure languages and crossword puzzle setter who also suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Why is it important that he and Julia should become friends? What does their friendship reveal about each other?
8. "A bad thing about dying," Elspeth writes to the twins, "is that I feel I'm being erased." What does she mean by that? How does Elspeth seek to rectify this feeling of "being erased"? Similarly, after Marijke leaves him, Martin worries that his wife is gradually “bleaching out of his memory.” How is the issue of memory important to the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry?
9. One of the pivotal moments in the plot occurs when Robert takes Valentina on their first date. How does their sudden romantic attachment affect Julia and Valentina's relationship? How does it affect Robert? How did you react when you realized that Robert and Valentina might become lovers, and why?
10. Why does Elspeth choose to leave her apartment to Julia and Valentina? At one point, Robert conjectures that “it’s the extravagance of the thing that appealed to her.” Do you agree? How does your opinion of Elspeth change over the course of the novel?
11. Though ghosts figure prominently in the storyline, the characters in the novel spend relatively little time asking themselves about the spiritual implications of their predicament. Why do you think that is?
12. Niffenegger depicts several long-term romantic relationships in Her Fearful Symmetry: Elspeth and Robert; Martin and Marijke; Edie and Jack; as well as Jessica and James Bates. Which, if any, of these relationships is successful, and why?
13. Many of the characters in the novel demonstrate nostalgia for things in the past: Robert with Highgate Cemetery and its history; Martin with mostly forgotten languages; Elspeth with her book collection; and, even Julia and Valentina, with their appreciation of old clothes and television shows. Why do you think Niffenegger includes so many “nostalgic” elements?
14. Niffenegger plays with the idea of "being lost" in at least two ways in the novel. Julia and Valentina are frequently lost in London. When she loses her way, Valentina begins to panic, but Julia "abandons" herself to "lostness." Meanwhile, Robert and Elspeth experience loss as it relates to death. How do these two types of loss play out in the novel? Are they somehow related?
15. The title Her Fearful Symmetry is derived from a poem written in 1794 by William Blake, “The Tyger.” Look up the poem online, and read it. Why do you think Niffenegger chose this title? How do you think she intends for readers to understand the word “fearful”?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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