Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, a book review

Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry

Finally, I got my hands on Audrey Niffenegger’s follow-up to The Time Traveler’s Wife. But where her first novel tackled involuntary time travel, Her Fearful Symmetry is steeped in the aftermath of a death when some sticky family secrets begin to unravel.

Niffenegger takes her narrative London this time, when one of the central characters, Elspeth, dies at the age of 44. This is where the fun and games begin – Elspeth had left her flat and belongings to her two American nieces, Julia and Valentina, mirror twins of her sister Edie and her husband Jack.

The story follows the twins’ move to London and their developing relationships with their neighbours – Robert, who was Elspeth’s lover, takes a shine to Valentina, while Julia strikes up a strange friendship with their upstairs neighbour, the obsessive-compulsive Martin. While Robert is mourning the loss of Elspeth, little does he know that her ghost is haunting the twins’ flat, growing stronger to the point of being able to communicate with them. Here’s the official synopsis borrowed from The Book Lady’s Blog:

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.

Niffenegger weaves a captivating story in Her Fearful Symmetry about love and identity, about secrets and sisterhood, and about the tenacity of life — even after death.

To be honest, it would be impossible to sum up the complexity of relationships – between the twins themselves (Valentina wants to distance herself from her overbearing sibling), between the twins and their neighbours, and the mysterious secret that split up twins Elspeth and Edie, to the point they remained estranged for years and seperated by an ocean. You’re going to have to read the book to understand what I mean. Alan In Belfast has a very good feel for the characters in his review.

Her Fearful Symmetry is not a ghost story in the traditional sense. It’s essentially a very human tale, with the supernatural element of the story dealt with as matter of factly as Niffenegger treated ‘chrono-displacement syndrome’ in her previous book. The story is set in and around the grounds of Highgate Cemetary in London, which casts a grim shadow over the cast and narrative. I found, as a regular visitor to London, her descriptions of the city charming but realistic, and Niffenegger clearly found that Highgate struck a chord with her, describing the Victorian attitudes to death and those Sunday picnics that would take place in cemetaries.

Some reviewers found the ending somewhat confusing. Me too. Niffenegger plays the age-old twin trick on us. One of the most important facets of the story – which hasn’t been discussed in any review I’ve read – is how willful and possibly manipulative Elspeth can be. It’s forewarned by Robert in the later chapters, just as the storyline is about to take a quite grim turn. And it leads to an ending than no-one could perhaps foresee and which leaves the reader with a few lingering questions with regard to the fate of one of the main characters.

I found Her Fearful Symmetry to be a fascinating novel. Niffenegger delves deeply into topics of life, death and relationships and dark family secrets and introduces a diverse supporting cast which reminded me at times of a gothic Richard Curtis movie. The fact that Niffenegger leaves the reader hanging at the end of the novel is perhaps the grimmest reminder that we cannot hope to know everything, and that some storylines will remain unresolved. As a fan of The Time Traveller’s Wife, I had hoped Niffenegger would be able to deliver as strong a second novel. And she does. She doesn’t trade on the success of that first novel, and nothing in Her Fearful Symmetry relies upon it to work – it stands alone as a fantastic, though-provoking piece of literature.

Check out our reading group discussion questions for Her Fearful Symmetry here.

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