Her Fearful Symmetry

The Short Version: Elspeth Noblin dies unfortunately young, leaving her flat and all her posessions to her twin nieces – the daughters of her own twin.  The nieces, mirror twins (literally), move to London and take up residence in the flat, only to find that Elspeth might be dead but she’s certainly not gone.  A modern gothic tale ensues, complete with twist endings.

The Review: I took a class my freshman year of college called “Poe & The Gothic”.  I am now, as a result, far too knowledgeable about these things for my own good.  As a result, I read a book like this and I think of the history behind it – the specific Gothic tropes being used and how they’re being used and how they’ve been used in the past and what they mean and all that.  This can heighten the enjoyment of a good Gothic novel but it can also shed light on the weaknesses of a mediocre one and that’s, unfortunately, what happens here.

The real shame is that this is not a bad novel.  In fact, it’s quite good – and the first two-thirds are arguably better than quite good.  The setup is terrific: identical twins who had a big falling out, one of them dies and the other has another set of twins who are eerie mirror images of each other (literally).  A creepy flat in London that backs up to a cemetery, a madman (sort of) who lives upstairs, the handsome young lodger, and a straight-up haunting.  I mean, you had me at twins and by London I was sold.  I actually found myself thinking of one of my favorite books – a book I haven’t read since the first time I read it, perhaps because I know it will never be as good – called Lost by Gregory Maguire.  It’s another ghost story in London and I have the fondest of memories… so I was quite excited by this.

The thing is, it’s all rather stake-less.  There’s something so blandly middle-of-the-road about the whole exercise that I never really got excited, even as I tore through the book.  It’s quite a quick read, which is nice, and the characters are certainly all interesting enough that I was enjoying them… but I kept thinking about missed opportunities.  There was never a sense of danger or any real anger, even when characters were described as angry.  I never got the sense that Julia and Valentina actually got angry with each other, even as Valentina was apparently yelling at her twin.  It just didn’t make sense to me – the stakes weren’t there.

Then, as the story increasingly sped along and we started to hit the real heavy plot points, I found myself astonished and not always in the good way.  SPOILERS are pretty much a sure-fire bet from here on out, by the way.
So when Robert finally opens the diaries and the letters that Elspeth left him and it is revealed that Elspeth is in fact Edie!  They switched, to play a trick on the prospective husband!  DUN NUHHHHH.  but seriously, I was on the train and aloud said “whaaaaaat!” because it was, to me, a surprise.  And such a great one, rife with meaning and drama and holy shit, man – they switched lives!  The twins were born to Elspeth and not Edie!  I mean, all sorts of wild stuff.  It’s crazy shit and it just sort of… happens and there’s no sense of excitement about it, really.  Similarly, when they pull this ridiculous stunt at the end where they kill Valentina and then try to resurrect her in order to allow her to escape from Julia’s overbearing sistership… it just felt like it was happening through a haze.  As though the OCD meds given to Martin that dull certain reactions also dulled the writing – there was a flattening of everything.

Also, I didn’t like the fact that there were these other plots with the secondary characters.  As much as I liked Martin – and even Robert and Jessica and Marijke – I didn’t think they needed to have their own parts of the story.  The diffusion of plot also lessened the impact of the novel.  Instead of being a cracking Gothic novel, it ended up just being a misty gray ghost story.  That’s not a bad thing but it just could’ve been so much more.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  In the end, I was more of a fan of this novel than I might’ve been because of the atmosphere.  Gray rainy London is my favorite thing in the world and reading the lion’s share of the novel (i.e. the good part, before things went a little wonky) on this past torrentially rainy Sunday was a delightful experience.  I just wish it had been a bitmore, you know?

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