Her Fearful Symmetry – reading group questions

Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry sees two twins move into their dead aunt’s London flat as part of the strange terms of her will. However, the ghost of their aunt Elspeth – to everyone’s surprise, even her own – continues to haunt the flat where she once lived.

For the first time on Unreality Shout, I wanted to introduce some questions for people who’ve read the book and want to discuss it a bit further. There will naturally be spoilers throughout the following post and in the comments section of the page – if you haven’t read Her Fearful Symmetry yet, be warned!

  1. After reading the book, do you think Elspeth had an ulterior motive for leaving her belongings to the twins and making them move to London away from their parents?
  2. Valentina wanted to separate herself from her twin sister, and suggested faking her own death to do it. Do you think – as Elspeth tried to reason – that Valentina was actually suicidal?
  3. Valentina felt the presence of a ghost as she and Julia walked along the canal. Since we know Elspeth couldn’t leave the flat, does that imply they were being followed by another entity, and that Valentina could see other spirits than Elspeth?
  4. At one point, Robert warns Valentina to be careful of Elspeth’s ghost, as Elspeth can be quite manipulative. Do you think Elspeth was consciously intending to steal Valentina’s body, after witnessing what happened with the Little Kitten Of Death?
  5. Robert – a lover to both Elspeth and Valentina throughout the book, leaves a finished manuscript of his book in the house he shares with Elspeth at the end. Do we come to understand that Robert couldn’t accept that Elspeth had stolen Valentina’s body and had either simply left her or – more radically – chosen to take his own life?
  6. Is the big secret between Edie and Elspeth confusing? If I’m reading it correctly, Elspeth (the one who lived in London) is actually the mother of Julia and Valentina, but chose to let her sister raise them with Jack. If that’s the case, is it even more shocking that Elspeth chose to take over Valentina’s body?
  7. “A bad thing about dying,” Elspeth writes to the twins, “is that I feel I’m being erased.” What does she mean by that? How does Elspeth seek to rectify this feeling of “being erased”? Similarly, after Marijke leaves him, Martin worries that his wife is gradually “bleaching out of his memory.” How is the issue of memory important to the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry? (borrowed from here)
  8. As with The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger uses supernatural or science-fiction plot devices to examine human relationships. How successful is this in making the story unique or more compelling?

For further discussion points for Her Fearful Symmetry, consider visiting About.com’s Book Club or this list of questions at Simon And Schuster. There’s also a reader Q&A with Audrey Niffenegger on GoodReads which you might find interesting.

1 Comment

  1. Gerard McGarry

    I should add that there’s a certain poignance in Robert’s role as a chronicler of the history of Highgate Cemetary – in response to question 8 where Elspeth feels like she’s “being erased”.

    The problem with Robert’s thesis is that he gets bogged down in the minutae of details about the cemetary. And with over 100,000 bodies interred in the cemetary, he can’t possibly keep the details of all of them. That kind of mirror’s Elspeth’s predicament as she’s dying: how can she preserve her memory? How much of her will remain in a few generations time? If someone came along years later to chronicle her life, how much would they get wrong or distort in the retelling?

    Having watched my own father die this year, I felt that sense of him being bleached out of existence – not only the slipping away or distorting of memories, but in people trying to claim “what he would have wanted”, whether it was true or not. After a while you find yourself wondering if you knew the person at all or if you invented or reinterpreted their personality. And in the end, does it really matter, since they’re dead?

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