This is a very spoilery review of "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger. This means that I give away the entire plot, including the end. Do not read any further if you haven't read this book and intend to read it someday. If you have read it, or don't really care, then continue.
I think the mark of a really good book is that no matter how far out of reality it takes you, you're more than happy to follow it down the rabbit hole. For instance, in The Time Traveler's Wife there's a man who is born with a gene that makes him disappear and travel in time. His wife meets him for the first time when she is five and he is forty, and it is the beginning of an epic love story, and not at all creepy. Sometimes the characters were selfish or made stupid decisions, but it meant they were "flawed" and that was okay.
Then you have Her Fearful Symmetry, which has you screaming "WTF!" at every plot twist and end up hating the characters. Edie and Elspeth are twins. It is hinted that they haven't spoken in years because Edie stole Elspeth's fiance. Edie moves to America with Jack and has her own twins, the creepy Julia and Valentina. Why are they creepy? For one thing, they are 21 and still dress alike in 8-year-old twin clothing that includes pleated skirts and knee socks. They sleep in the same bed, curled up together. Neither has had sex because if one of them lost her virginity before the other, it would be tragic. I'm sure any boy from their high school could have suggested a logical solution to that problem.
Elspeth dies from cancer in London and her younger lover Robert is distraught. This is when the book is still on the rails...I teared up at poor Robert mourning his dead love. Elspeth leaves her home and entire fortune to her nieces. They are to live in the apartment for one year and their parents aren't allowed in it.
Exposition, exposition, exposition. The twins move to London, discover they are rich, and then spend their days sightseeing. Seriously. These are 21 year old girls in London, and not once do they ever go to a pub. Robert follows them around for awhile because he's too shy to introduce himself, and even he wonders if they're ever gonna go to someplace cool.
Turns out, Elspeth is a ghost, haunting her own flat. She gets stronger and figures out how to make herself known. The book is still good. Robert and Valentina start an affair. The book is still good. Valentina and Julia begin to fight because Valentina wants to grow up and become her own person and Julia wants them to stay matching bookends forever. The book is still good. Elspeth figures out a way to communicate with them all. The book is still good. Then all of a sudden...
The book is replaced with a soap opera. Elspeth accidently takes out the soul of a kitten and then jams it back into the body really quick before it dies. This gives Valentina the brilliant idea that in order to escape Julia and become her own person, she will have Elspeth take out her soul, and then put it back in after the funeral. What?! Apparently this is a better alternative to her collecting half of the money and going to college herself, which was the other option that was presented. But no, she explains that Julia will never let her go because she's so controlling, even though there was a scene where Julia has a black eye from Valentina. The idea of her parents hearing that their daughter is dead gives her a twinge of guilt, but that's it. Elspeth is horrified at the idea. Robert is told and is horrified at the idea. Then they give in by rationalizing, "Well, if we don't do it, she'll kill herself anyway." Huh? The girl needs a shrink, not a resurrection!
So they do this horrible, selfish thing, and it gets worse. We get the big reveal on what happened to Edie and Elspeth all those years ago. There was no big fight...they had switched identities. Edie used to be Elspeth, who was engaged to Jack and pretended to be her own twin coming on to him to see what would happen. Jack falls in love with the other twin, and instead of coming clean, they decide to switch identities, so original Elspeth will now be fake Edie in America with Jack, and original Edie will be fake Elspeth in London, and they decide never to talk again so Jack won't find out. But! Fake Elspeth has sex with Jack one night as a joke (I'm being serious), and gets pregnant with the twins. So fake Elspeth moves to America with Jack and pretends to be Edie, even though she is really Edie, so I guess she's pretending to be herself? And she doesn't even like Jack? And she hates being a mom? So she goes back to London and switches out with fake Edie again, and they live happily ever after, even though they still can't ever see each other again. Did you follow any of that? Because I had to read it over five times to get it all straight.
Then the plot twists a little more, and Jack reveals to Robert that he knew about the twin switch ALL ALONG! He was pissed at real Elspeth pretending to be fake Edie, so he decided to play along and it got out of hand. He knew they switched after the London trip because, duh, your body changes after being pregnant. Stretch marks don't just disappear! The the plot twists a little more, and Robert tells Jack about his having sex with fake Elspeth, which he never knew, and Jack breaks down because he has only now realized—after Valentina's death—that the twins are his own daughters. This is supposed to be tragic and make me feel bad for him, but I can't because he is a FUCKING IDIOT! In fact ALL of them are idiots, except strangely enough for Julia, who was set up as being the controlling, manipulative one, and ended up being the only one with sense enough to say, "Hey, here's a problem, we should talk about it." Have I mentioned how much I hate plots that hinge on the characters having a complete lack of communication skills?
Not surprising, things go wrong when Elspeth tries to put Valentina back in her own body. Then...another plot twist! Elspeth jumps into Valentina's body herself. Robert is freaked out, but Elspeth explains that Valentina was a weak, misty ghost and couldn't get back in her body, so Elspeth saw this perfectly good body (it had been kept cold) not being used, and thought, "Hey, why not?" This actually makes sense to me. Valentina was the one who wanted to be dead so badly, so she can just stay that way. Team Elspeth!
Blah blah blah, Elspeth disguises herself with hair dye and contact lenses, gets pregnant (seriously, what a way to ruin your perky 21 year old body. And why did she get want to get pregnant? Because she was such an awesome mom the first time around?), moves to the country with Robert, Robert leaves her because he's so grossed out by what she did (but not too grossed out that he didn't screw her), the end. Jack tells Edie he had always known about the twin switch, and somehow it's all okay, the end. Valentina becomes a stronger ghost, gets out of the flat, and becomes a happy phantom, the end. Julia lets Valentina go and gets a cool boyfriend with a motorbike, the end.
What I haven't mentioned is the side plot about Martin and Marijke. Martin has OCD in a bad way...can't leave the house, has newspaper covering up the windows, boxes of stuff piled up everywhere. Marijke can't take it anymore and leaves him. Martin and Julia strike up a friendship, and through this Martin begins to sort himself out and take medication so that he can get back to his wife. This was the epic love story of the book, and in every review I've read, this is the story that everyone loved, not Robert and Elspeth/Valentina. Martin and Marijke would have made a great second novel all on their own, but it seems like Niffenegger really wanted to write a gothic ghost story, so instead you get a plot that VC Andrews would have found implausible. Please Hollywood, I beg of you, leave this book alone and don't turn it into a crappy movie.