Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger’s latest novel Her Fearful Symmetry explores the lives of a set of twins who are bequeathed an apartment in London by their late aunt, Elspeth Noblin. Elspeth has been estranged from her twin sister Edie for 20 years. Elspeth is diagnosed with cancer and, knowing  that she has less than a year to live, begins writing to Edie, who has moved to the United States and settled into a Chicago suburb with her husband and their twin daughters.  The sisters don’t have any other contact other than the letters that Elspeth sends, but when Elspeth dies, she leaves her flat, bordering Highgate Cemetary, and money, to Edie and Jack’s twin girls, Valentina and Julia Poole.

The conditions of her will state that the girls must live in the flat in London for at least a year before they are able to sell it, and that their parents are to never step foot inside the flat, not even to visit.  During the year they spend in London, the girls are introduced to quirky and emotionally troubled neighbors with questionable lifestyles. They try to figure out what it means to have existed in double for an entire life, and whether they will be able to forge and pursue interests separate from one another.

I was immediately drawn in and intrigued by the characters – the themes of loss, isolation and identity that they were facing, and the variety choices they made in determining their lives were fascinating.  The first third of the novel had me deeply invested in finding out how they had gotten to where they were in life, and what would happen next.  Living so deeply entwined for so many years seems to have had a profound detrimental impact in Elspeth and Edie’s lives, and there is a sense as the book unfolds that the same tragic pattern is emerging among Valentina and Julia.  I watched to see whether they would be able to manage their connection and start to create and invest in what could be a healthy and satisfying lives for the both of them. Elspeth also adds a unique dynamic to their relationship- the twins are in her apartment, surrounded by her things, and are also graced with her presence as a spirit who is not quite ready to move on.

Julia gravitates toward Martin, an intelligent and oddly charming older man whose lifestyle is severely inhibited by a crippling case of OCD.  Martin is learning to live alone after his long-suffering wife Marike, has finally left him, unable to live with his untreated illness any longer.  Valentina has strange interactions with Robert, Elspeth’s younger lover,  who can barely manage to face them in the wake of Elspeth’s death.  As I settled into the middle part of Her Fearful Symmetry, my interest started to wane considerably,  as the story wanders and becomes a bit stagnant.  The pacing slowed to the point where I wondered if there would be a point to the book, as Julia and Valentina wandered aimlessly through London, covering the same emotional conflicts and concerns.  There was a point where it would have been very easy for me to walk away and not finish the book.

The last third of Her Fearful Symmetry was able to get the book back on track for me as a precipitating event finally brings the mounting issues and tensions to a head, and the answers to some long answering questions are brought to light.  I loved the moral implications about identity and the lengths that people are willing to go to for self-preservation.  Once again Niffenegger presents a story with polarizing and off the beaten path issues to explore. I’m impressed with the varied themes and stories that she chooses to explore with her clear and engaging prose.  I like thinking about her stories, and so far they have made for great discussions, but if they were a little bit tighter I think I would like them that much more.

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37 Comments

  1. I was sort of disappointed with HFS. I expected to be "wowed" and I just wasn't. I thought much of it was sort of hokie and Els gave me the total creeps, especially at the end there. It was odd but not dark and creepy in the way that I expected. Not a typical ghost story for sure.

    1. I wasn't wowed by The Time Traveler's Wife either, so I think that didn't ruin it for me. I enjoy her writing and think she is skilled in that respect, but parts of it just dragged on for way too long. I felt the same way about the other one as well. I enjoy chatting about the questions that the book raises.
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  2. I must be the ONLY person out in book blog land who hasn't read Time Traveler's Wife and of course I have also not read this one either! They are both on my TBR list though, does that count?

    1. LOL. If you have other things that are must reads I wouldn't rush. I thought the concepts were interesting and I enjoyed the conversations it started on That's How I Blog! but I might have gotten stuck in that middle had I not had a reason to finish.
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

    1. It's a good read, but it will keep. lol I am listening to Angelica on audio – I think you are my contributing factor with that one 🙂 – and I must say, what an odd book. I feel like I might have said that to you before, so forgive me if I am repeating myself, but wow, it is really strange.
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  3. great review nicole. i never tread the time traveler's wife, but did thing this book was pretty good –not perfect but good.

    1. Yes. I thought it redeemed itself nicely. I got a little restless in the middle, but I did enjoy it.
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

    2. Yes. I thought it redeemed itself nicely. I got a little restless in the middle, but I did enjoy it.
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  4. I read about 150 pages into this book and just couldn't finish it. The pace was just too slow for me.

    1. Love is a very strong word. It was good but flawed. I managed to enjoy it in spite of the fact that it wandered off course but I definitely don't recommend that anyone run right out and buy it.
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  5. This is definitely a book I'm really interested in reading. I actually haven't read anything by Niffenegger yet, but I have heard so many wonderful things about her writing. I might start with this one – I'm really interested in identity issues and am certainly interested in how she deals with them in this story.
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    1. Her writing is lovely. Like I said she wandered and went a little too long for my tastes but definitely left me with interesting things to ponder and explore.
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  6. I went into this book without the baggage of having read The Time Traveler's Wife. Maybe for that reason I LOVED this book. Not quite 5 stars, but close. I was really drawn into the whole weirdness of it all…the twins, Elspeth, the kitten of death, the whole thing. It was twisted and disturbing, and I not only thought about it for ages, but had dreams about dead kittens. It grew on me the more I pushed it around in my mind.
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    1. It's nice too go into a book without baggage. I didn't really have any from TTW, and I think that she is very versatile with the stories and the ideas that she explores. I enjoyed all the elements that you mentioned but I guess I am just more impatient. My attention started to wander!
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  7. I was going to read this for the THIB show but I have failed. I will read it some day. Glad you hear you liked it – I've heard mixed reviews.

    1. LOL. You were probably somewhere eating popcorn and drinking wine, and sad that you had scurvy!
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  8. Although I adored Niffenegger's writing, I did not like this book. I read it, and I read it quickly because of her command of language, but the story lost me about half way through. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I am still looking forward to reading The Time Traveler's Wife one of these days.
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    1. I am totally with you on that middle section. Luckily I had to finish it for the show, or I would not have finished, but it turned out to be good enough that I don't have that many regrets.
      My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  9. I want to read this one just to see how it compares to the Time Traveler's Wife, which everyone seemed to love and I didn't so much. I am intrigued by your review as to whether or not it will do it for me but of course I will read it eventually 🙂 Thank you for the thorough review!
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  10. I can see how that might happen. I read it for a radio show discussion so I had a little extra incentive to finish, but I was really wanting her to move it along!
    My recent post Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger – Book Review

  11. I loved Her Fearful Symmetry. The setting was perfect and the thought provoking themes, such as the self preservation that you mentioned, really made me think.

  12. I'm definitely looking forward to reading this one, but I'm nervous about several of the things you've mentioned… and the fact that the book is HUGE and looks so scary sitting on my bookcase, haha! Still, I'm sure I'll crack it open one of these days. Sounds like a good fall/winter read… I'll probably stay away as the weather gets nicer! I'm weird like that.
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  13. Oh, boy–I just can't decide if I want to pick this one up! Some don't like it at all, some love it; there just seem to be so many questions about the writing. I guess there are plenty of other books for me to read while I ponder this one!

  14. This is on of those books that I still think about occasionally even though I finished it months ago, so I agree that her books give you a lot to discuss. I also thought she did a fabulous job of incorporating Highgate Cemetery into the plot ( in fact I now want to visit it).

  15. I for sure want to read HFS this year. I adore Audrey Niffenegger. Though not sure if I want to read this or The Time Traveler's Wife first. Excellent review. BTW: There's a little something at my blog for you. 😀
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  16. I for sure want to read HFS this year. I adore Audrey Niffenegger. Though not sure if I want to read this or The Time Traveler's Wife first. Excellent review. BTW: There's a little something at my blog for you. 😀
    My recent post Prolific Blogger Award. 😀

  17. I quite enjoyed this book when I read it in January. Though I did have some minor issues with it, on the whole, it wow'ed me! I hated Elspeth and wanted to kick Valentina some times, but I thought this was a very bold concept to write about. Here's where I drooled about the book.
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  18. I really enjoyed this book. I love how Audrey’s books have very supernatural elements, that are still very much grounded in the real… Henry is a time traveler, which is very fantastical, but by making him not be able to control his travels, we feel as though it could really happen. Her Fearful Symmetry had the same quality for me – although it strange, it was real. Great review!