Saturday, September 26, 2009

Traveling with Books

When traveling, I have always loved to find a book to take along that has some connection to that place I am going. I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham's The Hours on a trip to England. I read Shakespeare's The Tempest in Bermuda and Steinbeck's Cannery Row on a trip to California that took me through San Francisco, Carmel, and Monterey.

A few years ago, I took Audrey Niffenegger's bestseller The Time Traveler's Wife on a trip to Chicago. My book club had chosen the book for our next meeting, so I arrived in the Windy City far enough into the book to finish, have a good cry, then to strike out in search of the places mentioned in the book. I found the Newberry Library near my hotel. I sat outside the Art Institute next to the lions where Henry had sat with his daughter. I even found the Monroe Street Garage, another significant setting.

Now that I have read Niffenegger's new novel Her Fearful Symmetry, I think I'm going to have to go back to London with the specific purpose of visiting the Highgate Cemetery, where the book is set. After all, having read the novel, I already feel as if I have traveled there.

Niffenegger's new novel passed a test of mine: she kept me as interested in her characters and her plot without forcing a comparison to The Time Traveler's Wife. This time her central characters include two sets of twins, one whose death sets the story in motion. Elspeth Noblin leaves her apartment to the daughters of her estranged twin sister, girls who have never known her. The conditions of the will bring the girls to London to live but without their parents.

I've always been fascinated by twins and the mysterious ties, so I loved this double dose. Julia and Valentina's lives have been defined and confined by their unique relationship. As they are removed from home and placed in this new setting amidst strangers, conflicts are certainly to be expected. Their lives intertwine with the neighbors there, particularly with Elspeth's lover Robert, a researcher and guide at the historic cemetery adjoining the property and Martin, a neighbor who life is crippled by his Obsessive-Compulsive disorder.

Readers of The Time Traveler's Wife won't be surprised when Niffenegger injects her touch of fantasy into this novel as well, although completely different from Henry's leaps back and forth through time. With the significance of the Highgate Cemetery in the novel, in fact, I think I'd have been disappointed without a spirit or two.

I often find myself explaining to people, "I don't usually read fantasy, but. . . ." Then I realize that I do; I just like the supernatural elements to seem real to me. It worked in Harry Potter. It works for Ray Bradbury. It works here, evoking my "willing suspension of disbelief."

Now I suppose that when I next visit London, the Highgate Cemetery will be a definite destination. When I seek out the tombs of Christina Rosetti, George Eliot, and Karl Marx, I'll be looking around for the Noblin family mausoleum too.


Unknown said...


Thank you for your kind words about HFS. My name is Matt and I work at Regal Literary, Audrey's literary agency. Readers of this blog might be interested to know that Regal has set up a fan page for Audrey's latest book and has announced a contest. If you sign up for the facebook page and send an e-mail to by October 1st, you will be entered into a lottery for the possibility of winning one of ten advanced reader;s copies or one of three 1st edition hardcovers of Her Fearful Symmetry. Thanks and good luck!

Tracie said...

I never even thought about visiting Highgate Cemetary until I read this book, now I'm intensely curious to see it. I found their website a bit disappointing, but I imagine that the real thing is amazing!