Book: Her Fearful Symmetry

The book: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

The edition: Vintage Books paperback, 487 pages

The story: twins Julia and Valentina live in near-symbiosis, when they unexpectedly inherit a flat in London, near Highgate cemetery, from their estranged aunt Elspeth. The flat is bequeathed to the twins under the condition that they live there for a year, and their parents do not to set foot in it. What nobody expected, is for Elspeth to turn into a ghost and haunt the flat. The ghost, the new city, the new neighbors (including Elspeth lover) will change how the twins see life and how they live their relationship.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I think Niffenegger was very unlucky to reach such heights with her first book — there was no chance at all she could do so again with her second! Don’t get me wrong, this is a good novel, a well constructed story, a fully developed setting, nice (and not so nice) characters… But it’s nothing to compare to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Too bad!

The part with spoilers: I have two issues with the storyline. One is about the Elspeth/Edie change/marriage/motherhood. I still cannot get my head around it. I see the need for a big secret in the past, to keep the plot going, but I feel it was overdone. Seriously, two identity exchanges? A bit morbid, right?
The other thing has to do with Valentina’s plan to “die and resurrect”. After Robert tells her that Elspeth surely has her own plans, why do the two of them go on with the plan anyway? I’m sure Robert could see what was coming… so why?

What I liked: a gripping story and a good analysis of loss in its various forms (mourning, separation, saying goodbye…). Side characters and side stories were nice, especially James and Jessica, and the twins’ father, and partly Martin and Marjike.

What I didn’t like: the almost morbid relationship between twins. I do not have multiples in the family, but even I know that you cannot let twins (or siblings, actually) become so dependent on each other! And that’s not the only morbid thing in the book…

Language & writing: lovely choice of words (and not only those I shared here). I feel the author has some issues with dealing with the passing of time in her books. It worked wonders for The Time Traveller’s Wife, but here it bothered me.

In the author’s own words: I loved the ghost tree scene (I know everybody quoted this, but it’s so lovely…)

James said, “I saw a ghost once. […] I was quite small, only a lad of six.  […] So, I was put to bed upstairs.  I remember lying there with the blanket pulled up to my chin, my mother kissing me goodnight, and there I was in the dark, not knowing what terrible thing might be ready to slink out from the wardrobe and smother me…”
Jessica smiled.  Robert thought it might be a smile for the morbidly fantastical imaginations of children.
“So what happened?”
“I fell asleep.  But later that night I woke up.  There was moonlight coming in through the window, and the shadows of the tree branches fell onto the bed, waving gently in the breeze.”
“And then you saw the ghost?”
James laughed.  ”Dear chap, the branches were the ghost.  There weren’t any trees within a hundred yards of that house.  They’d all been cut down years before.  I saw the ghost of a tree.”
Robert thought about it.  ”That’s rather elegant.  I was expecting ghouls.”

I also appreciated the way she described the process of mourning, as in this passage:

He was not ready for her absence. No one he loved had died, until Elspeth. Other people were absent, but no one was dead. Elspeth? Even her name seemed empty, as though it had detached itself from her and was floating untethered in his mind. How am I supposed to live without you? It was not a matter of the body; his body would carry on as usual. The problem was located in the word how: he would live, but without Elspeth the flavour, the manner, the method of living were lost to him. He would have to relearn solitude.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: what’s the point in cemetery tourism? I just don’t get it.

Read this if: if you like Gothic novels, unusual ghost stories, and at the same time books that analyze feelings and relationship evolutions.

Counts as: I want more Challenge book #2

SIDE NOTE: I added two more sections to my review format, now I feel it should be good. I owe the “links to better understand the book” to this blog. If you have any comments about the format, please share.

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2 comments on “Book: Her Fearful Symmetry

  1. In general I liked the book. Was also creeped-out by their relationship, but the good story-telling kept me going. I loved all the descriptions of Highgate Cemeteryand in particular the story about the boy who say a ghost tree.

  2. I remember reading your review. If I’m not wrong, you said you’d want to visit Highgate cemetery… Can you explain why? I just don’t get the interest.

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