Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Paperback: 406 pages

Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (September 29, 2010)

ISBN-10: 1439169012

ISBN-13: 978-1439169018

I might as well admit before I start that I have a bit of a thing for cemeteries. If that makes me weird, well it isn’t the only thing that does. There was a small cemetery just around the bend from the house I grew up in, and as a child I would often wander over to look around, read the headstones, and wonder about the people lying below while I munched on the blueberries growing above. I wasn’t living in Halifax long before I discovered the magic that is the Old Burying Ground, and have spent many an afternoon strolling through.

As such, it should be no surprise that I was so taken in by a book that centres in and near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery. (Side note: This past fall my aunt Alice loaned me the non-fiction book  Necropolis: London and Its Dead and thus I was  primed on the history and significance of London’s burial grounds. You never know when such knowledge might come in handy.)

Her Fearful Symmetry begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin. Elspeth has been estranged from her twin sister Edie for more than 20 years, and has no other family living. She leaves her flat (with its view of and back entrance to Highgate Cemetery), her money and all of her belongings to the twin daughters of her twin sister – with one caveat: they must live in the flat together for one year before they can inherit it, and their parents may not set foot in the flat during this time.

The 21-year-old but maddeningly infantile twins, Julie and Valentina, move from Chicago to London to take over the flat, and while there meet and befriend their aunt’s former lover and downstairs neighbour, Robert and their  obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic upstairs neighbour Martin. Oh, and Aunt Elspeth, who though dead is still inhabiting her old flat.

A bit nutty? Perhaps. But fascinating. The twins interactions with the new city, their new friends, their aunt and each other reveal much about themselves, their upbringing and the trouble between their mother and her sister. In fact, it was the relationship between both sets of sisters that most fascinated me. There was co-dependence and manipulation, but also a deep attachment, love and life-long connection.

I don’t have a twin, but I do have a sister only a year older than me, who I went through twelve years of school with, shared a room, shared the same group of friends, shared apartments till I was twenty (and still share my house whenever D is away, which is often). We share a name for Pete’s sake – same name, two different languages. On top of this, I have a younger sister, my mom had NINE sisters and my dad has six.  So needless to say, the interaction of sisters in fiction and film is of great interest to me, and I get very annoyed when it is done poorly. This was done well. Which is not to say they belong in an after-school special, or were at all like Tash & I. They were rather awful really. But it was still so believable.

If there was anything about the novel I didn’t like it was the development Elspeth’s character. Or the lack of development. By the end of the book you come to realize she is cruel and manipulating, but there is no gradual revelation of this. She is presented as quiet and studious in the beginning, and then with one comment, Robert mentions her controlling nature, and it seems everything she does from that point onward is from a completely different character.

Still, I really enjoyed the novel. It gave me chills. It made me sad. It made me angry. It flirted with cliché a few times, but always pulled up in time. The characters were hopelessly and endearingly flawed, each in their own way. It played with the paranormal and our belief of how death works – but only a little. And perhaps the best part: it was completely different from her last novel, which I also loved, The Time Traveller’s Wife. I want to recommend it to everyone – well I do recommend it to everyone – but I feel I need to tell you that no one else I have talked to who read it or tried to read it has enjoyed it. Might just be more evidence for my strange literary tastes.

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8 thoughts on “Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

  1. I loved the setting of this book too. I have to admit to spending far too much time on the Highgate Cemetery website after reading it, and I’m even planning a trip there in the summer. That probably makes me very weird. I loved this book, but The Time Traveller’s Wife is still my favourite of hers.

    • I’d love to visit Highgate. Only been to London once, for a very quick 2-day visit while in the UK for other reasons. We did a tour of the old city, and Hampton Court, but none of the parks & cemeteries. Must go back.

  2. I wasn’t sure about this one when I read it. It was certainly no Time Traveller for me… but then, I read it while in the throes of some Norovirus, so I should perhaps give it another try in a year or two.

    I will admit it was interesting with a neat little plot, but it didn’t find its way into my heart like Time Traveller.

  3. hmmmm…I have been eyeing this book in the store. You make it sound interesting! Maybe I’ll have to add to it my wish list 🙂

  4. Read and reviewed this book when it first came out in hardback – mostly because it was the same author as the Time Traveler’s Wife. Had forgotten about it – thanks for helping me remember it.

  5. Pingback: 2011 To Be Read (TBR) Challenge « One book per week

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