HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger [Review]

her-fearful-symmetry

What do a haunted apartment, a cemetery, two sets of eccentric twin sisters, an agoraphobic obsessive compulsive, and the Little Kitten of Death have in common? These are the peculiar things that come together in Her Fearful Symmetry, the second novel by Audrey Niffenegger. As you can probably guess, it’s a unique novel filled with quirky characters and not all of them are amongst the living. Set in London, it has a dark, gothic tone with themes of death and grief factoring heavily into the story. But it is also about love, albeit the obsessive love between twin sisters who can’t live with or without each other.

The twins in question are twenty-year-olds Valentina and Julia, mirror twins whose mother, Edie, is also a twin herself. Edie and her family live in the Chicago area and she is estranged from her twin Elspeth. Elspeth has never met her nieces, but when she dies she leaves her apartment in London to them on the condition that they must live there for a year. Valentina and Julia move to the apartment building and meet its other occupants: Robert who was Elspeth’s longtime love and Martin who suffers from a raging case of OCD. The building is next to Highgate Cemetery where Elspeth is interred. The twins soon begin to suspect that their apartment may have another occupant as unexplained things begin to happen.

Valentina and Julia and their weird dynamic are at the heart of the novel and they somehow manage to be creepy, frustrating, and boring all at the same time. “Eccentric” is probably a mild way to explain their behavior. They wear matching outfits, walk down streets holding hands, and sleep in the same bed. Julia is the dominant twin; she bosses around and mothers the helpless and sickly Valentina. They’ve dropped out of college several times and they don’t work because they can’t decide on a career that the can pursue together. That’s really the problem in a nutshell – they don’t seem to do much of anything for the first part of the novel. Their dependence on each other has left them stuck in adolescence and their immaturity quickly wears thin.

One thing Audrey Niffenegger is talented at is making the unbelievable feel believable. She did this with time travel and now she makes the ghostly events in this book seem completely natural. She also describes Highgate Cemetery so vividly that it almost becomes a character itself. I wasn’t surprised to find out the Niffenegger worked there as a guide, much like Robert does in the novel.

Comparisons of Her Fearful Symmetry to The Time Traveler’s Wife may be unfair but they are inevitable. Anyone expecting The Time Traveler’s Wife Part II will be disappointed because the two books are radically different. The only similarity I noticed was that both books have an interesting take on death and the idea that love can somehow transcend it. To me, the themes of obsessive love in Her Fearful Symmetry just can’t match the rich emotional love story of The Time Traveler’s Wife. I also found the ending of Her Fearful Symmetry rather unsatisfying, though it was certainly memorable. Not all of Niffenegger’s fans will be pleased with the new book, but I think the darkness of the story will attract many new fans to her work.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5 | Publisher: Scribner | Pages: 416 | Buy on Amazon

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