Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Twenty-year-old twin sisters Julia and Valentina are surprised and intrigued when they learn that their recently deceased aunt Elspeth left them her London apartment. The one condition is that the girls must live in it for one year, in which time their mother, Edie (Elspeth’s twin) is not to set foot in the apartment. So the twins move from their Chicago suburb to London, to Elpeth’s flat which borders the Highgate cemetery, and shares a building with Robert, Elpeth’s lover, and Martin, a very nice man who has a serious case of OCD and never leaves his flat. The girls work to understand the truth about their mother and aunt’s relationship, and as they do so they realize that Elpeth might still be around, in some form, to guide them through her own past.

Would you believe I bought a new copy of Her Fearful Symmetry the day it was released (September 2009) and am just now getting to it? I should really stop doing that! But in this case, I’m kind of glad I waited, because upon its release there was a TON of hype. And a lot of bloggers who read it right at that time ended up being disappointed. However, since I knew to dim my expectations a bit, I actually loved the book. Once I understand that I wasn’t going to get The Time Travelers Wife part two, which luckily I knew going into this novel, I was able to relax and enjoy the book for what it was. And what an excellent novel Her Fearful Symmetry is!

Niffenegger’s prose is just fabulous. It’s haunting and lush without being over-the-top. She is able to draw so much out of her characters without explicitly telling the reader what they’re thinking and feeling – she writes them so that the reader feels that he/she knows them. Her characters truly come alive on the page.

The actual plot of Her Fearful Symmetry is interesting, but there is a lot going on that the reader needs to keep track of. There are the twins, Julia and Valentina. There is the other set of twins, Edie and Elspeth, and there is quite an involved story about their lives growing up and how they ended up estranged from one another for twenty years. There is Robert, who is grieving the death of Elspeth while simultaneously beginning a new relationship. There is Martin, the upstairs neighbor, who is trying to overcome his disorder so he can be with his wife again. And then there is the fact that this is somewhat of a ghost story, too. But the elements of the story never felt overwhelming for me, which is a testament to Niffenegger’s talent – everything came together seamlessly.

The ending came as a huge surprise to me, and while everything about it was incredibly sad, it did fit with the rest of the story well. These characters made some very poor choices, out of ignorance or out of selfishness or both, and some of them had to suffer for it. I also was happy to finally learn the truth about Edie and Elpeth’s estrangement.

I’m so glad I finally made myself read Her Fearful Symmetry! I don’t know that this book is for everyone, but it was perfect for me and I absolutely loved it.

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16 thoughts on “Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

  1. I do that a lot too – I always buy books and then they get pushed aside for library books that need to be read first or something else! I’m really interested in reading this book, in truth I wasn’t as thrilled with The Time Travellers wife (I think going back to all the hype) but I would really like to give the author another chance and maybe go into this novel with fewer expectations.

    1. Yes, I read The Time Traveler’s Wife on a whim, and hadn’t even heard of it before I read it, allowing me to really love the story without the hype influencing my opinion. But if you can agree that Niffenegger’s writing is something else, then do pick up this book. It’s SO different from TTW, but also you can see the author’s handprint on both books.

  2. I was really disappointed with this book. I did read it when it first came out, because I did love TTTW. But I wasn’t expecting that book again, just a well written, engaging story. Instead it felt like a rehash of a billion stories we’ve heard before (identical twins, cemeteries, ghosts, mistaken identities). Obviously this happens a lot as new ideas are hard to come by. But it wasn’t at all fresh. Worse than that I thought her writing ability had devolved. It was painful to read some of it and that came as a surprise to me, as did the badly developed characters.

    Glad you enjoyed it though. It’s obviously not a book for everyone. I am hoping she writes another that I love, and it hasn’t ruined my enjoyment of her first.

    1. It’s definitely not a book for everyone – there are so many people who loved it, and so many people who fervently disliked it as you did. I personally loved her writing, and as for the characters – I felt that they were developed enough, maybe not perfectly (not as much as the characters in TTTW, for sure) but enough for me to love the book.

  3. I adored this book – much more than TTTW which, although clever, had far too graphic sex scenes for me. But this was gorgeous. I loved the characters and I loved going to Highgate Cemetery when I lived nearby so it really awakened memories for me. I read it last summer at the hospital when my darling dad was dying and it totally took me away from reality for a few hours. I cannot wait for AN’s next novel. She has an amazing gift.

  4. I bought this one as soon as it came out as well, but with the negative reviews…I was hesitant. I wanted to read it on my own time, and not expect much. I still haven’t read it, but I would like to read it soon. Great review! Thanks for reminding me, this book is patiently waiting…

  5. I loved it too! A lot of bloggers were so disappointed in it, but I enjoyed it a lot. It didn’t have the same level of intensity as The Time Traveler’s Wife, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I loved the plot — Audrey Niffenegger is so inventive!

  6. This book surprised me. I don’t like books with ghosts in them. I needed an audio book and since I really enjoyed TTW I thought I would step out of my comfort zone. I did like this book very much but think it was listening to the british accent that made all the difference. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half as much if I had read it in print. I also read The Night Bookmobile which is very good also. Niffenegger is a very versatile writer and I like that in an author. I look forward to her next work.

  7. This sounds like a really good read…I hadn’t heard of it til your review. Thank you so much for sharing. I love when I can come across newbies to add to my TBR list. Thanks again!

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