I was about 10, and a few of us kids wandered into a neighborhood cemetery. It was an old Lutheran cemetery, and some of the grave stones are as much as 150 years old. We walked through the new headstones to see if there was anyone we knew, and then my sister and I started to explore the older section.
The other kids got a little nervous: Should we be doing this? My sister and I kept skipping through the headstones, reading epitaphs. Maybe we should come back with chalk and tracing paper! Isn’t this disrespectful? Don’t you think the dead will, you know, mind?
I was shocked. How could exploring cemeteries possibly be disrespectful? I did it with my parents all the time.
Exploring cemeteries has always been a normal activity for my family. Maybe it’s because we have no reason to fear death, or maybe it’s because cemeteries are such a pleasant way to find stories about people from the past. They’re parks and museums and libraries and architectural tours all rolled into one.
Julia and Valentina are not identical twins, they’re “mirror twins”. They look almost exactly alike, but opposite. If Julia has a mole in her left shoulder, Valentina has the same on her right. Valentina has situs inversus, a congenital condition which causes internal organs to be switched. (Her heart is on her right side, etc.)
The sisters just inherited their Aunt Elsbeth’s London apartment. Julia and Valentina receive the estate when they turn 21, on the condition that they live in the apartment for one year, and that they do not allow their parents to set foot in their new home. Their aunt is their mother’s twin sister, and they’ve been estranged for the girls’ lifetime.
When Julia and Valentina arrive in London, they find the apartment just as their aunt left it: clothes in the closet, books on the shelves, and a cemetery out the back door. There’s also something…new. Valentina begins to sense that there’s someone in the apartment with them.
As the book rolls on, the sisters begin to struggle. They’re twins; they belong to each other. It’s a closeness that’s more than marriage. But Valentina, whose always been the weaker, wants freedom. She doesn’t want to belong to anyone anymore. As the sisters pull apart, Valentina starts to communicate with the ghost of her Aunt Elsbeth. The selfishness of each of the characters becomes more and more apparent, and the reasons behind Edie and Elsbeth’s, the girls’s mother and aunt, estrangement start to unearth themselves.
The relationships in the book are complicated. They’re a mix of love and selfishness. Everyone wants to own somebody else, but they want to keep their own freedom. Everyone is in a cycle of pulling and running, and running and pulling. All of this pulling eventually unravels the family’s secrets.
Even thought HFS is a ghost story, the book is never particularly spooky. I think it’s because Elsbeth (the ghost) is just as deep a character as everyone else. She’s not just some cold ectoplasm—even though she is cold. And an ectoplasm—but she has thoughts and feelings and an (internal) voice. She’s just temporarily without-body.
This all seems rather depressing: death, estrangement, disorders with Latin names, but the book never is. The story is engrossing, and the family’s mystery adds just the right amount of twists. Audrey Niffenegger populates the book with charming characters. (20% of each character’s charm comes from the fact that they’re British. It’s unavoidable.) Even while you learn their dark secrets, they remain likable. Martin, the upstairs neighbor with OCD, is one of my favorites.
Of course the dead don’t mind if you run over their graves and take chalk-rubbings of their headstones. They lived full lives and they have stories left to tell. Her Fearful Symmetry is kind of like a long walk through a cemetery on a stormy day: beautiful old buildings, fresh air, and stories creeping around every corner.
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