Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry
By Audrey Niffenegger
Simon & Schuster
September 2009
416pp

The blurb from the publisher:

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; they 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. 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 former 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.

The Short of It:

A different kind of ghost story. Creepy in the telling and disturbingly wrong at times, yet it lures you in.

The Rest of It:

*No Spoilers*

It’s impossible to discuss this novel without giving away bits of the story so I won’t discuss plot. What I will discuss are some of the characters and how I felt while reading it. The start of the book was a tad slow but it picked up pretty quickly. Once you know all of the players, and there are only a handful of characters in this novel, you pretty much just sit back and take it all in.  The twins are creepy. Both Elspeth/Edie and Valentina/Julia. Although the younger set appear to be somewhat normal, their dependence upon one another is a real turn-off at times and they still dress alike which at twenty-something says a lot about them. Weird!

Although I didn’t care for the twins too much, I was fascinated with the other characters in the novel, my favorite being Martin. Martin lives above the twins and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. His compulsions are well-drawn and easy to visualize. He’s such a nervous sort, that you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Underneath all of his insecurities is a decent man and that comes through. I enjoyed reading about him.

Elspeth, the ghost, interested me in the beginning but my opinion of her changed towards the end. What I found fascinating about her, was the learning process of being a ghost. Hiding in drawers, short-circuiting TVs, flicking lights on and off. Good stuff. As the story progresses things get creepier and Elspeth becomes more desperate, as do some of the other characters in the story. The overall desperation left me a bit depressed. I felt as if my insides were scooped out in some way.

Those that enjoy traditional ghost stories may be a tad surprised. Her Fearful Symmetry is not a traditional ghost story even though it has the requisite cemetery, two sets of creepy twins and a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s…different. The characters talk to themselves a lot. I really enjoyed that part though. There are secrets and twists yet they aren’t really that surprising once revealed. Meaning, they won’t floor you, but they will bewilder you a bit. If you can step outside of what you consider a traditional ghost story to be, then you will enjoy this one. Although this one left me feeling a bit hollow, I still enjoyed it quite a bit for the characters.

Also, I raised an eyebrow over the ending. I emailed Jill/Fizzy to get her take and we have different takes. If anyone wants to share their take with me, leave me a comment and I will email you as I don’t want to spoil anything for those that haven’t read it yet.

Source: I won this signed copy from Regal Literary via Facebook.

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28 thoughts on “Review: Her Fearful Symmetry”

  1. It really amazes me (even though it shouldn’t) that there is such a wide array of opinions on this book. I really loved it…the creepiness, the weirdness, the twists, the flawed characters. I think I said in my review that I had dreams about kittens! I would love to talk about the end and about Elspeth.

  2. This book is on its way to me and I am excited to read it, though I know I still won’t e able to read it for awhile. I am really intrigued by this different ghost story.

  3. The reviews I’ve read for this one are all over the place! I think I’ll want to give it a try but I’ll plan to borrow it so I won’t feel like I wasted money if I bought it and hate it.

  4. I have a feeling that Niffenegger wouldn’t think it was a bad thing to have left you with your insides feeling scooped out, at least you had a strong reaction to the book. I would like to know your take on the ending, I thought it really worked, but we’ll see how I feel after the audio re-read.

  5. I loved this book. The twins were not my favorite either but I did like how they…. won’t say here! I was not completely surprised by the twists either but still was completely involved in the story, the setting and the characters.

  6. I would love to know your take on the ending! I was surprised at Elspeth’s part of the ending, but not surprised at the secrets that were revealed. I agree that it is really a different kind of creepy.

  7. I really enjoyed this book too – it kept me wanting to know how it would end and I’m waiting to talk to someone about the book too! I don’t want to spoil anything for the reader.

    Email me if you would like to discuss it – I would love to talk, did you see things coming etc…

  8. I have decided to give this book to my daughter for Christmas, in the hopes that she will let me borrow it after she is done reading it 🙂 I think it is one that I might enjoy.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  9. Well done review! You captured so much of what I felt about the book. I’m still mulling over my review but by the time I get around to finishing it, everyone will have either read it or reviewed it!

  10. Overall I enjoyed this book. It is outside my normal reading but I was interested in it. That ending left me can’t really describe it but I was not surprised at most of it.

  11. Hey, Ti! Just stopping in to say hi.

    The first review of this book that I came across called the book incoherent, and that first impression is lingering. I’ve got enough here on the TBR mountains that I’ll probably skip it. Unless you can convince me otherwise…

  12. I didn’t really like either set of twins either. Elie and Elspeth were manipulative, and Julia and Valentinia were manipulative in their own ways too. But I liked the book overall, which I thought was cool since not liking most of the main characters can make it hard to enjoy a book (sometimes).

  13. I was really disappointed in this novel – the twins annoyed me and like you, I thought that Martin was the most interesting character. I also thought that the plot was generally predictable.

  14. Thank you for a spoiler free review. I am intrigued but I just didn’t care for Time Traveller’s Wife so I’m a little turned off to Niffenegger right now. I’ve heard they are very different but they are both by the same author. How different can they be?

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