Scribner, 2009. 416 pages, $27 (Hardcover).
It must be very difficult to write a serious ghost story. The Victorians had it down pat: M. R. James, Edith Wharton, Sheridan Le Fanu. Not to mention Henry James, Charles Dickens, or Elizabeth Gaskell. There are some contemporary writers that can pull it off. Stephen King, for example, when he wants to. I’m sad to say that the ghosts in Her Fearful Symmetry are not terribly serious. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying most of the story.
Valentina and Julia are twins who have inherited a London flat from their aunt, their mother’s twin. Their new home is conveniently located next to Highgate Cemetery, the resting place of Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti, and George Eliot. The cemetery provides enough ambiance and personality to give this story otherworldly depth. The excursions amongst mossy, leafy tombs are pleasant and not too frequent. I only wish the scenes set in the apartment would have been given a bit more brevity. What’s a creepy, dusty flat without ominous bumps and cold shivers? There was dust, certainly, and cold shivers, but I was never very afraid while reading this novel.
I, like everyone else and their book club, read Time Traveler’s Wife with a mixture of bemused sentimentality and unease. Niffenegger knows how to write and like TTW, HFS trips along with the same upbeat pace. It makes the story move quickly but it also makes the weird, uncomfortable family sub-plots seem like the come out of left field. Valentina’s blossoming romance with Robert, for example, was awkward at best and incestuous at worst.
Despite some structural difficulties, Niffenegger does a fine job with the material she has at hand. The silly ending wasn’t enough to ruin the magic she weaves at the beginning. Thankfully, HFS is about 150 pages shorter than TTW, so I didn’t leave with the same exhausted feeling I did with her first book. No doubt Niffenegger will appear on the scene in a few years and blaze a trail through the NYT best-seller’s list once again. It will be interesting to see what speculative fiction she comes up with next. In the meantime, I’ll be reading Henry James.