...Then I could go back and visit myself and make sure I don't bother reading 'Her Fearful Symmetry'. 'The Time Traveller's Wife' is one of my all time favourite books, but this novel is as bad as that was good.
Things start well, and I thought I was in for another treat. Reading Niffenegger's prose is effortless. She has a an exquisite way of paring down emotions, without becoming bogged down in flowery language. The main emotions that run through this book are love, grief and the claustrophobia of life.
The novel centres around 'mirror' twins, Valentina and Julia, who are identical but inverted. They inherit a London flat from their Aunt (Elspeth), who is the estranged twin of their mother (Edie). The reasons for this estrangement are 'dark', 'mysterious' and - oh yes - 'wholly predictable'. In the flat below where the twins live, resides Robert, their Aunt's former lover, and a historian with an interest in Highgate Cemetery. The third resident in the block, and by far the most interesting character in the book, is Martin, a reclusive crossword-setter, whose wife has recently left him, unable to cope with his OCD. If the book had been more about these two, I think it may have been a many-splendoured thing.
Most of the book follows the twins as they explore London, free from their parents, and offers an interesting perspective on the life of identical twins. If you have spent your entire life together, how do you gain independence from one another, without shattering a unique relationship? Not being a twin myself, I have no idea who accurate a depiction this is, but I found it thought-provoking and moving. It's a shame the same can't be said for the rest of the book.
It's hard to explain why the book is so bad without giving away important plot points, but it will be no great surprise that somewhere along the line there are some twin-swapping shenanigans, hardly the most innovative of plot devices. (Also, despite her assertions to the contrary, the author kept muddling the names of the twins in question here, making for a very confusing read.) The structure of the novel is all over the place. The time-frame jumps forward abruptly with little or no reason, making the novel feel disjointed. Considering that the 'TTTW' flows so well, despite its wildly altering time-frame, this is inexcusable.
Robert is a terrible character, who has the most unreal friends. Essential to the plot is an act that in normal society would see Robert pilloried by everybody that knew him (and this is before all the ghost stuff), yet nobody says anything about it all. The whole latter half of the book is based on the flakiest of premises. Worse still, Niffenegger forces her characters to fit the novel's events without subtlety. They move towards their various dooms like automatons; there is no sense of character development or any plausible reason why the players act like they do.
Then comes the ghost story, which starts interestingly enough, but eventually descends into implausible farce. In 'TTTW', the concept fitted into our reality with the minimum of artistic licence, but here we are asked to swallow a much bigger pill, and I found it impossible. The novel's twist, I saw coming from a long way off, which probably didn't help, but the whole thing stank of a rejected Stephen King storyline. The only good thing I found in this section, was the novel's conclusion, which I know a lot of people didn't like. I thought the abrupt ending was strong, and in keeping with the self-absorption the characters had displayed during the rest of the novel.
In summary this is a terrible novel, one which should do serious damage to Niffenegger's status as a serious literary novelist. The only thing to come out of this novel with an enhanced reputation is Highgate Cemetery, which is depicted with a great deal of care and attention. It is sounds like a fascinating place, filled with history and stories. This story however, is not worth the cover price.