It seems like bad manners to bring up money in connection with a book about 1) highly refined, Oxbridge-y English people, or 2) a subject as ethereal as ghosts. But not every author is paid nearly $5 million for writing one. Having produced, with an out-of-the-way publisher, the proverbial surprise bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger then got those five millions out of Scribner for the manuscript of Her Fearful Symmetry. That much based on a mere outline would’ve seemed even more galling, of course—because then we’d be looking at something like $200,000 a page for a few hundred lines of pitch. Whereas, at 416 pages and some of the ambi-artistic Niffenegger’s sepia-tinged photographs, this baby came in at only about $12,000 per, or, say, $33 a word.
What Scribner perhaps also thought it was buying was a franchise—as Stephen King’s publisher hoped to build on an identity as a more bookish female counterpart.
Whether it will have been a wise purchase in monetary terms remains up to the Scribner publicity department, booksellers, morning talk-show hosts, book clubbers, and anyone else who relishes the supernatural with their staycation reading. It’s genre roulette, and not an advance earned back in hard cash per se. What Scribner perhaps also thought it was buying was a franchise—as Stephen King’s publisher hoped to build on an identity as a more bookish female counterpart.
But ghost-story virgin that I am—OK, I’ve done it with Hawthorne, Poe, and Henry James—I find it hard to evaluate such an expensive novel on the very terms being counted on to make it a financial success. Instead, to me, for reasons beyond, and sometimes in spite of, the whoo-whoo factor, Niffenegger has written a niftily absorbing book. Less tempestuous and intensely charged with romantic passions and narrative cliff-clingers than The Time Traveler’s Wife, its wallop is incremental and laconically empathic, sensitized to attachment’s eccentricities, love’s perverseness and some unusual moral dilemmas. It traffics, as did Wife, quite endearingly in the super-heroics of such head-dwellers as librarians, archivists, classics scholars, and historians. Come to think of it, its egg-headed transportative force could, if Scribner gets lucky, help make it an intellectually hospitable guidebook to London for thousands of Niffenegger readers who, book in hand, are sure to roam and ruminate on the city and its Highgate Cemetery, in and around which most of the novel takes place.
In another part of her hyper-productive life as a considerable visual artist, Niffenegger gets her Blake and Fuseli on as she weaves her story through a middle kingdom of mortal loss, ambiguous leave-taking and extrasensory sightings. Yet there’s nothing florid about her writing. Mystically action-packed, too, is Vautravers, a dowdily Gothic residential building overlooking the graveyard that provides a front-row seat to the locale’s spooky potential. It also seems to underscore the welcome mat the novel’s more commercial instincts lay out for its waiting American audience—Vautravers contains not flats, as might be expected from a nearly pitch-perfect exercise in droll Anglophilia, but “apartments.”
One of these gets bequeathed to a pair of college-age twins from Chicago by their aunt Elspeth—their English-born mother’s mysteriously estranged twin sister, who dies right at the outset. In addition to the Vautravers abode, she leaves behind a younger and devastated lover living in the apartment below, and her own ghost, which fits comfortably and, she finds, quite conveniently for haunting and spying purposes, in a drawer of her desk.
Niffenegger comes up with plenty to spy on. In tune with the novel’s mausoleum visits, jaunts by Underground, and a donnishly handsome upstairs neighbor with agoraphobic compulsion disorders, the effect is just shy of claustrophobia. But the deeper she goes, the more opens up. The young American sisters, Julia and Valentina, are pretty blond sprites who, on the verge of playing out as annoyingly highbrow versions of the Olsen Twins—Valentina even wants to be a fashion designer—deftly acquit themselves of the challenge Niffenegger sets herself with the novel: to freshen psychic-science fiction’s affinity for doubling and doppelgangers, twinning and splitting, mind-reading and shape-shifting, by giving weight to even the sparest emotions.
Valentina goes way back as a softy, but she develops a surprisingly strong will as she starts to recognize and reject the emotional dependence that Julia, the more robust and take-charge of the two, has always exacted from her. Her drive for independence takes off in a most peculiar direction when she falls in love. In a novel that has two fairly creative plot twists, one A Big Reveal, the other A Big Plan—that’s $2.5 million each, but at this point it seems churlish to be counting—the romantic angles are refracted for more than mere heaving-bosom purposes, and stack up to several compulsive triangles of affection. Species of devotion proliferate. Niffenegger makes understandable how a very normal assortment of people can be in love with acres of gravesites. And just how far afield some will go to change a story’s ending. For her there’s not so much life after death as death come to life.
Much of the time, she is wonderfully funny about it, and good-humored, the supernatural her accomplice in comic relief. Apparently ghosts have mood swings, some of them hilarious, some very irritating. There remains much entertainment in the unresolved endurance of early family relationships. History is a joke on everyone. Dead people miss their high-heeled pink suede boots but may be willing to forfeit them where sex is involved. Who needs trapdoors when romantic rondeleys can shift from this world to the next, and back?
As for communicating with the dead, so much of the fiction-making process is about communication among characters, between reader and writer, from unconscious to conscious, past to present, and fact to fantasy, what’s a little Ouija-boarding among friends? Such are the emotional imperatives that know no bounds. I would not exclude from these Niffenegger’s apparently fast conviction that she would be able to write about a spiritual world without being hokey. That she could make an image like, “A flock of umbrellas opened almost at once” just as haunting as, “A dark form stood framed in the window against the darkness of the room, like a hole in reality.”
This publishing season kicked off with Dan Brown. But it moves forward much more propitiously with Niffenegger’s quieter enigmas. There’s commercial fiction, which Niffenegger’s skillful literary novels have turned out to be, and then there’s commercialized fiction, like Brown’s. The first are books that bring added value to the popular, the second cheapen the whole proposition of publishing. In that light, $5 million seems a bargain.
Celia McGee has been the media columnist of the New York Daily News and the publishing columnist for The New York Observer. She covers the arts and publishing for The New York Times and others.