As one of the central characters in Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry puts it, one of the worst things about dying is not being around "to find out what happens next." But, much to her surprise, when Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer at age 44, she remains very much aware of what is to come. She, in fact, gets to influence much of it - and not just because she willed her London flat to the twin nieces she has not set eyes upon since they were babies.
The nieces, Julia and Valentina, are twenty-year-old mirror-image (literally) twins living with their parents in Chicago. Because Elspeth had been estranged from their mother (who is Elspeth’s own twin sister) for their entire loves, the girls and their parents are somewhat shocked by the letter announcing their inheritance. But there are a couple of catches: in order to claim the property, the girls must live in it for one year and their parents must not enter the apartment for that entire time. Julia and Valentina, not a particularly ambitious pair, jump at the opportunity to live in London and, with the reluctant approval of their parents, accept their deceased aunt's proposition.
When they arrive in London, Julia and Valentina are somewhat surprised that their new flat borders London's famous Highgate Cemetery, the final home to Karl Marx and George Eliot, among others. But, despite the seeming reluctance of their neighbors to make contact with them, the girls manage to navigate their way around the city quite nicely on their own, determined to make the most of their unexpected windfall. Soon enough, however, they begin to suspect that they are not the only residents of their new apartment. Their dead aunt apparently has some secrets to share with them.
Make no mistake: Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story. For that matter, despite its lack of blood and guts, it is a superb horror novel. But it is Niffenegger's way with fictional characters that transforms the novel into such a memorable reading experience. Julia and Valentina do eventually meet the people occupying flats in their building. Robert, their aunt's lover is an independently wealthy man able to spend much of his time as a volunteer guide at Highgate Cemetery. Martin is a brilliant crossword puzzle "setter" with such a terrible obsessive compulsive disorder that his wife has finally given up on him and moved back to the Netherlands. Even the characters not as directly connected to the twins, especially Martin's wife Marijke, are vivid and well constructed. And best of all, the workings of Highgate Cemetery are presented in such sympathetic detail, that the cemetery itself becomes another key character in the novel.
Bottom Line: Her Fearful Symmetry is a compelling ghost story. It is impossible to read the novel without a growing sense of dread at the realization that, as the book begins to draw to a close, all is not likely to end well for many of Niffennegger's characters.