This is a bizarre, surreal, and very captivating read. I’d read The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago by the same author, and although I enjoyed it greatly, it didn’t grab me the way this one has. Her Fearful Symmetry is one of the strangest and compelling ghost stories I’ve read in ages, although I warn you now that you’ll need some MAJOR suspension of disbelief to keep going.
About six chapters in, I thought this was a lovely, well-written, and poignant love story about a woman – Elspeth – who dies (literally in the first chapter so no spoilers) and whose spirit is confined to her apartment. In life, she leaves this apartment and her money to her two identical twin nieces, Valentina and Julia, who must live in the apartment for a year before selling it, and come to experience their aunt’s ghost in some very unusual ways. Elspeth’s lover, Robert, lives in the same building, mourning her and working at the creepy and haunted Highgate Cemetery right outside the apartment. There are some other fascinating characters: Martin and Marikje; Edie who is twin’s mother and Elspeth’s own estranged identical twin; and Jack, the twin’s father.
However, when I finished the book, I was torn. How to describe a book that is so gorgeously and atmospherically written and with characters that are mostly so very unlikeable? My perception of many of them definitely shifted as I kept reading. Robert, who in the beginning seemed a tragic and romantic hero, ended up being a weak and wimpy ass. Elspeth and Edie – well, all I have to say is, I’m glad I never had a twin. And Valentina and Julia’s own twisted and symbiotic relationship leads to the pivotal action in the book. There are family secrets, twin-swapping, body switching, ghostly conversations held through an Ouija board and written on dusty furniture, and the haunted apartment itself that to me, seemed like it must be drapery-shrouded, pale gray and blue, cold and mysterious overlooking the graves of Highgate.
I’d suggest reading it, certainly. Niffenegger writes so beautifully and poignantly about life, love, death, and her brand of magical realism can turn even a modern-day London apartment into a spooky, gloomy, Gothic place of magic. I think what was difficult for me was the ease with which the characters completely accepted events that were not just bizarre, but completely outside the realm of reality. I get that it’s magical realism, but magical realism needs to have whimsy and sensuality to make it work. Here, the magic is there, the supernatural is there, but against a backdrop of rain-spattered windows, takeout containers, and a ghostly cat called Kitten of Death. The eerie and the mundane.
Robert, grieving after Elspeth’s death, finds himself drawn to Valentina (how Freudian, right) and proceeds to court her, starting the process that ends in the most major plot twist. Part of his courting involves showing her and Julia – who dislikes him for taking her twin away – around Highgate Cemetery, where he brings them both lunch one afternoon, in a true clash of cultural vocabulary.
“I’m fine. Thanks for bringing lunch, this is good.” Say something nice, Julia. “Yeah, really good. What are we eating?” “Prawn-mayonnaise sandwiches.” The twins inspected the insides of their sandwiches. “It tastes like shrimp,” said Julia. “You would call it a shrimp-salad sandwich. Though I’ve never understood where the salad idea comes into it.”
Shrimp and mayonnaise together are a foodie match made in heaven, and though I omitted the bread, I still wanted to recreate the taste of prawns in homemade mayonnaise, so I came up with this tasty treat. I had some black olives to use up, so those got added to the mix. Yum!
For the homemade mayonnaise:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped black olives
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
For the grilled shrimp:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
7 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons dried red chili flakes
Fresh Italian parsley
3 dozen thawed shrimp
Firstly, don’t let anyone tell you making homemade mayonnaise is hard. It’s not, it’s just time-consuming. Note: make sure all ingredients are at room temperature.
Whisk the egg yolk, the Dijon mustard, the white wine vinegar, the lemon juice and the salt, and then very slowly, drop by drop, add the olive oil and use a hand mixer to mix.
Whisk it for 5-10 minutes as you add in each drop of oil, until the mayonnaise starts to thicken and emulsify. You’ll see and feel it, and I promise you the end result will be so worth it.
Mix in the black olives, the sun-dried tomatoes, and the basil, stir to mix, taste for seasoning, and chill until ready to use.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan, and add the garlic. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes, then add the red chili flakes, the juice of the lemon, and the rest of the chopped basil, and lightly saute for another 5 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.
Heat a ridged cast-iron grill pan to high. Slice the shrimp lengthwise down the middle and remove the vein. Season with salt and pepper and a bit more red chili flakes.
Place the shrimp into the hot grill pan, grill for 3-4 minutes until the shrimp becomes pink, then quickly add in the cooked garlic, basil and parsley.
Remove immediately from the heat. Pour over the remainder of the melted garlicky butter, and sprinkle with the remainder of the fresh chopped basil and parsley. Serve with the mayonnaise on a platter. Not only is it delicious, it’s extremely beautiful to look at as well. A treat any ghostly spirit or human might enjoy.