Narrator: Bianca Amato
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 9/29/09
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
An intriguing premise quickly collapses under the weight of unlikeable characters, a lack of focus on multiple plot fronts that held few surprises for me, and some inconsistencies in character actions and one particular event. Even an excellent narration couldn’t quite save this for me although it did keep me listening until the end rather than DNF-ing.
“When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers–with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another.
The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building’s other residents. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.”
Opening with the death of Elspeth, this book then takes a leisurely path through the grief of her lover Robert and the introduction of her twin nieces. The time spent with Julia and Valentina in America watching them interact with their parents is a thin layer of background information that establishes the fact that neither twin is at all ambitious (or employed) and that Valentina has subsumed her wants and desires to Julia as the more dominant twin. Edie and her husband were at odds with Elspeth for almost all of their married life although the reasons aren’t laid out until much later in the book. The twins come across as uncommonly juvenile to me, even though they are twenty, and that was part of the struggle for me given that they have so much page time. I was unable to like, sympathize, or generate interest in most of the the people in this story. Of all the characters in this book, I most liked Martin, with his OCD and more optimistic mindset and his (mostly absent during the book) wife Marjike.
Leaving the intriguing story of what could have been a study of family dynamics, the twins move to England to take up residence in the apartment Elspeth bequeathed to them They set about exploring their new environment but this acted more as a prop piece for further fleshing out the dynamics between the two and otherwise seemed a listless ramble around the new environs and the new characters they meet. What seems to be a case of an overbearing twin further develops as we learn of Valentina’s health problems. As “mirror image” twins, Valentina was born with many of her internal organs on the opposite side and she has asthma and a weak heart. Julia’s at first overbearing demeanor reveals itself as more of a protective streak for her weaker “half” and Valentina’s smothered personality is revealed as partly related to a weak character and an inability to forge her own path. Robert spends much of the middle of the book avoiding the twins and existing in a pool of grief.
As the presence of Elspeth becomes more and more clear to the girls, Robert begins to play his part in the story. He’s weak both with and in his grief. His avoidance of the twins turns into an odd obsession with following them and then a paltry imitation of infatuation with one of them. The supernatural element introduced with Elspeth was a change of pace and I was enjoying it, thinking the story might start taking off but it ended up being just another messy plot slapped onto an already wobbly structure. I did enjoy the complexity of Elspeth’s character while not particularly finding much to like about her but the next change-up in the plot threw me for a loop with it’s utter unbelievability and I was ready to tune out at that point. There were few surprises as to how events in this book would turn out and while I normally appreciate a less-than tidy resolution to stories, I was disappointed that there was nothing to redeem a batch of generally unlikeable characters.
The narration was excellent and is really what kept me listening. Bianca Amato is quickly becoming a favorite narrator of mine because of her care in handling every part of the author’s narrative, her pleasing voice, the understated strength with which she delivers the emotional content of the characters’ arcs, and the easy transition between character voices. The American accent wasn’t perfect but wasn’t “off” enough to really distract me and every other pat of the narration suited my listening preferences.