Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry
Audrey Niffenegger

rating: 8 out of 10 "books"

Having read Niffenegger’s first novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and not caring for it in the least, I went into the reading of this book with no expectations. The main reason I even picked it up was because I discovered after seeing Neil Gaiman speak at one of my local libraries and reading his Newbury Medal Award winner, “The Graveyard Book,” that Gaiman and Niffenegger both visited Highgate Cemetery (I believe it was Highgate…can’t remember all the details) together while writing their “ghost stories” respectively.

I’ve seen many reviews by people saying this book is a huge disappointment; that it doesn’t measure up to “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” blah, blah, blah. And I suppose I can understand why people might feel this way. However, if you go into the reading of “Her Fearful Symmetry” expecting “The Time Traveler’s Wife Part II” you will no doubt be disappointed. This book is in no way a love story. Sure there are some romantic elements to the story, but if anything the overarching theme is people moving away from one another over time, not the other way around. The story begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who in her will, leaves her London flat and everything in it to the twin daughters of her own twin sister, Edie. Elspeth and Edie have long been estranged, and part of the mystery of the story is finding out the reason why this is. Twenty-ish year old twins Valentina and Julia move to London from Illinois to live in the Aunt they’ve never met’s flat, at least for one year before selling it, as the will states. They encounter all of Elspeth’s neighbors; from her much younger lover, Robert, to her strange upstairs neighbor, Martin, who suffers from severe obsessive compulsive disorder, causing his wife to leave him for Amsterdam early in the story. The twins not only look about twelve, as described in the book, but they act that way much of the time as well, which may cause readers some annoyance. The girls have never had a job, never really been on their own, and can’t even stay in school long enough to get any sort of degree. The story almost feels very Young Adult more than Adult at times, which may be reason why dedicated fans of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” may not like this book.

The title of “Her Fearful Symmetry” factors in a few parts of the story: the twins are what the author calls “mirror twins.” Valentina is the exact opposite in appearance from Julia in that while a mole on Julia’s face is on one side, let’s say the left, Valentina’s is on the right. They are identical but each of their features is opposite as if they were looking into a mirror when glancing at each other. Even the girls’ internal organs are opposite. While Julia has a normal layout of internal organs, Valentina’s are all opposite; from the placement of her heart on her right side of her chest and so forth. The author describes how the doctor had to use a mirror when performing surgery on Valentina as a baby because the reflection that it gave (of a normal heart) was how he was used to seeing it. Another portion of the novel that references symmetry is a passage narrated by Martin describing the way he likes to have symmetry in his washing and shaving patterns. As for the actual meaning of the title, that is up for the reader to decipher.

Although the twins do everything together and dress identically, their behaviorisms are very different as far as attitudes and interests. Julia is more outspoken than her twin and Valentina often feels resentful for the things they do not do because they are always things Julia does not want to do. Whereas Julia seems to have no life aspirations, Valentina would love to go to fashion school and get a real job. As the story begins to unfold, we see the twins’ relationship begin to unravel. Add to that the fact that the flat may be haunted by the ghost of Elspeth, which we do in fact find out, is the case. The story builds up to a very twisty climax and finishes on an utterly somber note.

As mentioned before, this is not a book for those looking for a happy ending. I was very surprised at the turn this book took. Niffenegger’s writing was very well done, especially in the descriptions of Highgate Cemetery, and I found this story very easy to read. There is definitely a style that I think Niffenegger has developed that can be seen in this story as well as in “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” I don’t know exactly how to pinpoint it, but in reading her passages on the more “intimate” parts of both stories, I can see a definite resemblance, especially in the male point of view. I honestly have to say that I enjoyed this novel. It was very different than much of the literature out there, and I felt it took a very different perspective as far as “ghost stories” go. I didn’t find it predictable in the slightest. Maybe it’s the average rating I would give “The Time Traveler’s Wife” that enables me to look past Niffenegger’s first novel and not feel disappointed by the second. I therefore give “Her Fearful Symmetry” a rating of 8 “books” out of 10.


  1. "if you go into the reading of “Her Fearful Symmetry” expecting “The Time Traveler’s Wife Part II” you will no doubt be disappointed."
    I never got people who took this attitude to reading. I want my authors to write different books, otherwise I just feel cheated. Thanks for the great review, I'll be adding this one to my list

  2. Kylie - I know what you mean. I liked that it had no real resemblence to Time Travelers Wife, and the style of writing was still the same, so I don't see what the big hoopla is.

    Thanks for your comment!!