Book Review: Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry

by EneryVibes

After the twin sisters Julia and Valentina move away from their parental home their close relationship changes. They went to live in London, after a letter from their aunt Elspeth’s solicitor making them sole benefactors of her possessions if they live for one year in her house. Their parents may come and visit, but aren’t welcome in Elspeth’s house. Her reasons will be explained if Elspeth’s lover, Robert — a neighbor and Ph.D. student writing an obsessive history of Highgate, where she’s buried — can bear to read the diaries she’s left him.

Her Fearful Symmetry is Niffenegger’s second book. Obsession is at the centre of the story. Various forms of love are portrayed in the book, like the oppressive closeness between the twins and the beyond-the-grave intensely deep feeling of Elspeth and Robert. The outright obsessive-compulsive disorder of the neighbor Martin whose afraid to leave his apartment boils down into his loving wife’s escape from his physical rituals and emotional tics. Obsession is also seen in the attitude of Robert against Highgate. He loses all perspective and there is no ending to his thesis.

On the other had death comes with its own set of rules. Elspeth’s spirit is unable to leave her old apartment, so she hides in a desk drawer and gains strength by teaching herself how to haunt. Eventually she will write in dust and manipulate a Ouija board. She is not one to let the physical defeat her, even when her preternaturally gorgeous American nieces (who resemble a young Elspeth and her own twin) move in and slowly befriend a bewildered and grieving Robert.

The twins Julia and Valentina are short, thin and pale, with white-blond hair and are dependent on one another. They mirror each other even inside, where Valentina’s heart sits on the right rather than the left and symmetry causes her a number of life-threatening health problems. Valentina is known as the nicer sister; perhaps inevitably, Robert finds himself falling for her, as she does for him. He is then in the awkward position of loving two women — one a living virgin, the other a phantom with an agenda. Surely when Valentina enlists her help to break away from Julia in an extraordinary way.

Niffenegger’s characters are selfish, vulnerable and sometimes crazy, They don’t live up to their potential and are indecisive. Valentina wants to be a fashion designer but allows Julia’s lack of ambition and general bossiness to keep her in a kind of perpetual adolescence. Martin is brilliant at languages, but his ­imposed confinement means he translates digitally submitted texts and constructs elaborate crossword puzzles destined to die along with the daily paper. The only strong character in the story is Elspeth who in the end gets what she wants.  

The ending is unsettling. With a story of two sets of twins and the supernatural in play, no wonder there are buried secrets and cases of mistaken identity. Valentina’s plan for escape is fantastical, its execution shocking and morally unacceptable.

If you like the supernatural you should read this book. It’s entertaining and I enjoyed reading it. Compared to her debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife this one didn’t bore me with the constantly switching of the time. Only the extensive description of the graveyard’s history I didn’t care much for. But ultimately it’s a good read.

Her Fearful Symmetry
Audrey Niffenegger
Vintage Books 2009
482 pages

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~ by eneryvibes on 1,August 5, 2011.

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