Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Julia and Valentina Poole are twenty-year-old sisters with an intense attachment to each other. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. Their English aunt Elspeth Noblin has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions for this inheritance: that they live in the flat for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the girls' aunt Elspeth and their mother, Edie.
The girls move to Elspeth's flat, which borders the vast Highgate Cemetery, where Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Stella Gibbons, and other luminaries are buried. Julia and Valentina become involved with their living neighbors: Martin, a composer of crossword puzzles who suffers from crippling OCD, and Robert, Elspeth's elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. They also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including—perhaps—their aunt.
I chose to use the publisher's description of this book because I didn't think I could objectively describe it. This book is all about twins, really. Two adult twins are separated by mysterious circumstances, and then one, Elspeth, dies. She leaves her estate to her twin's two twin daughters who come to live in her flat overlooking London's Highgate cemetery. But Elspeth isn't really gone. She is stuck as a ghost in her flat, haunting the young twins amidst their backdrop of ever growing discord with each other. This can't end well.
And it doesn't. I stayed up until midnight reading the last 100 pages in a desperate need to see this book rescued from itself. I was very disappointed. The book isn't beautiful, dark and gothic, which is what I think the author was trying for. It is just distasteful. I loved Niffinegger's first book, The Time Traveler's Wife, so I think the fact that this one doesn't fall even close to the same level was the biggest disappointment for me. So sad to say, this book can't get a positive review. I wonder where her magic went. Will I still pick up any forthcoming novels by her? Probably, because I know she has it in her. But this one is a big miss.
A bit about Highgate Cemetery: Highgate is a huge sprawling Victorian era cemetery, which was opened in 1839. Just over three and a half thousand pounds was paid for seventeen acres of land that had been the grounds of the Ashurst Estate, descending the steep hillside from Highgate Village. Over the next three years the cemetery was landscaped to brilliant effect by Ramsey with exotic formal planting which was complimented by stunning and unique architecture by Geary and Bunning. It was this combination that was to secure Highgate as the capital’s principal cemetery.
The unparalleled elevation overlooking London, with its highest point being 375’ above sea level, along with unique architecture, meant that the wealthy were encouraged to invest.
Two Tudor style chapels were built, topped with wooden turrets and a central bell tower. In the very heart of the grounds was created the grandest and most eccentric structure, an avenue of vaults on either side of a passageway entered through a great arch. It was created in the Egyptian style which was so in vogue following the discovery of the Valley of the Kings. These vaults were fitted with shelves for 12 coffins. The avenue led into the Circle of Lebanon, built in the same style. This circle was created by earth being excavated around an ancient Cedar of Lebanon, a legacy of the Ashurst Estate and used to great effect by the cemetery’s designers. Above this, catacombs in the gothic style, with an impressive 80 yard frontage, with room for a total of 825 people, were completed in 1842.
Many famous people are buried there, most notably Karl Marz, father of Marxism. Other famous residents include Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Charles Dickens' parents, and Adam Worth the possible inspiration for Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty.
It has recieved numerous references in pop culture, such as a burial place for Dracula's victims in Braham Stoker's novel and the setting inspiration for Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book. It has also been the backdrop for some scary movies.