Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my Top 5 favourite books of all time. If you know me then you’ll know that this is no small accolade, especially considering that I’ve been consistent about this for more than a few months. I don’t keep “favourites” easily, so for me to still be speaking favourably about TTW means that it has taken a place in a very small and elite group of things.
It’d be a surprise for Niffenegger’s follow-up to match, let alone exceed the esteemed position of its predecessor. Indeed Her Fearful Symmetry is not her next Magnum Opus, but if it weren’t living in the shadows of glory, it might’ve been better received. In writing this delayed review, I still remember the book quite fondly despite going into it with a highly sceptical attitude, which means at the very least that it must have been pretty good – even if I didn’t want to admit it at the time.
If TTW was Niffenegger’s attempt at writing science fiction, then Symmetry is her attempt at a ghost story. She takes another crack at dealing with love and loss, but it’s neither as wrenching or satisfying with this setup.
The events of the book begins with the death of Elspeth. She has an estranged twin living in America, but in a gesture with an unclear motive, she leaves her estate, near Highgate Cemetary in London, to her nieces – who are also twins. Enter Julia and Valentina, two teenage girls who have yet to figure out what they need or want in life apart from each other. They travel to the England to work out what they want, and in the process become involved in Elspeth’s life and the people in it. Elspeth herself, meanwhile, has not quite passed on.
Niffenegger spent a considerable amount of time immersing herself in Highgate Cemetary, to the point where she was giving tours (including one attended by her friend Neil Gaiman, which partly informed his The Graveyard Book). So the setting of the book is meticulously described, and thoroughly believable. The characters though, are a little less well realised in comparison, and while the metaphysical contrivance is interesting and imaginative, the author never really seems sure about what to do with it or where to take it, and the story meaders around it from start to finish.
But that aside, Niffenegger still manages to keep you wanting to turn the pages, and before you know it you’ve finished. So even though I was predisposed to being critical of this book, I went along for the ride and found it to be quite enjoyable.