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Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

her-fearful-symmetryTitle: Her Fearful Symmetry

Author: Audrey Niffenegger

Genre: Fiction

Two Sentence Summary: When their estranged Aunt Elspeth dies and leaves them her apartment, twins Julia and Valentina move to London. Too bad Elspeth might not actually be gone!

One Sentence Review: Although Her Fearful Symmetry isn’t as emotionally intense as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger’s second novel still serves up curious supernatural doings in an artfully written story.

Blogger’s Note: I received a free copy of this book for review from Regal Literary.

Long Summary: Elspeth and Edie Noblin have been estranged since they were young women — Elspeth remained in London while Edie immigrated to the United States with her fiance Jack. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her London flat (located directly next to the famous Highgate Cemetery) to her nieces Julia and Valentina on the condition that the girls live in the apartment for a year. Wanting to get away from their parents, Julia convinced the more timid Valentina to go on the London adventure with her.

When they arrive, Julia and Valentina get absorbed into the strange life of Elspeth’s neighbors in the apartment building — Elspeth’s lover Roger Robert and her upstairs neighbor Martin. Robert is a historian working on a history of Highgate Cemetery who is struggling to get over Elspeth after she died. Martin is struggling with his own battle — a near crippling case of obsessive compulsive disorder that has caused his wife Marijke to leave him and return to Denmark Amsterdam.

The twins have always been close, mirror images of each other, but their relationships does have some some strains that living away from their parents start to make worse. Normally shy Valentina wants to spread her wings and pull away from Julia, but doesn’t know how to do it. Julia wants to keep her twin close, but also wants to have adventures in their new home. And as it turns out, Elspeth might be haunting the apartment and manipulating its occupants from beyond the grave.

Long Review: When I got an e-mail offering an ARC of Her Fearful Symmetry back in August, I was really excited! I got the book in the mail after a couple weeks, but didn’t get to start it right away. As I read, I found myself moving through it slowly to try and absorb the plot and enjoy Niffenenger’s writing style. I got done with the book and then didn’t quite know what to think, which is why it’s taken me so long to write this review.

Her_Fearful-Symmetry2I enjoyed reading book (especially for the plot and style), but I never felt like the characters grabbed me the way I was hoping they would. I loved some of them, Martin and Marijke in particular, but I found Elspeth too manipulative, Julia too overbearing, Valentina too shy, and Robert too inconsistent. They were just hard to fall in love with. But I guess as I think back on it, the reason they were hard to love was because their flaws were so well written and developed they seemed like real people — just sort of sad and unpleasant sorts of people.

The reason I loved Martin and Marijke was because, despite their flaws, I felt like they were always working toward some positive goal. Martin’s OCD is crippling — he can’t leave his apartment, compulsively cleans, and demands more from Marijke than she can give him. Despite being deeply in love, Marijke has to cut herself off from him or risk losing herself. The way they try to maintain their relationship is honest and genuine. Neither one sees how they can get over their impasse, but neither one seems to give up hope for their relationship.

But even without many characters that I loved, I thought the book’s plot was great and Niffenegger’s prose was just beautiful. It’s easy to just get caught up in the writing of the story and the great writing was probably the reason the characters tended to annoy me. Here’s the opening few paragraphs to give you an idea of what I mean:

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small paper cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head toward the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious.

In the second before she died, Elspeth remembered a day last spring when she and Robert had walked along a muddy path by the Thames in Kew Gardens. There was a smell of rotted leaves; it had been raining. Robert said, “We should have had kids,” and Elspeth replied, “Don’t be silly, sweet.” She said it out loud, in the hospital room, but Robert wasn’t there to hear.

Elspeth turned her face toward the door. She wanted to call out, Robert, but she throat was suddenly full. She felt as though her soul were attempting to climb out by way of her esophagus. She tried to cough, to let it out, but she only gurgled. I’m drowning. Drowning in a bed … she felt intense pressure, and then she was floating; the pain was gone and she was looking down from the ceiling at her small wrecked body.

Going back though that opening again, I’m impressed with how much it represents what the book is about. There’s the idea that no one in the story seems to be able to communicate; the reader knows what all are thinking and can see how they’re not connecting. Here, it’s because of death, but the theme runs through the book. And you see this relationship Elspeth had with the person closest to her — a man asking for children, and his female companion refusing. And the rotting and the drowning and the disgust of this hospital. This scene setting is so clear throughout the rest of the book.

Although I don’t want to make to many comparisons to The Time Traveler’s Wife, there are some ways that the books are pretty similar. In this story Niffenegger doesn’t bother to explain why there are ghosts or give many details about the rules ghosts have to live by. We learn what Elspeth the ghost can and cannot do along with the rest of the characters so the plot doesn’t get bogged down by those questions. Ghost story lovers might find that frustrating, but I didn’t mind it.

The review is sort of rambling, but I think that’s appropriate for how I’ve been thinking about this book. It had characters that were affected by flaws that made them real, even if those flaws also made them unlikable. It didn’t blow my mind or break my heart the way other books I’ve read recently have, but it told a good story that I’ll read again.

Other Reviews: Devourer of Books; Stainless Steel Droppings; The Book Lady’s Blog; Books on the Brain; Yule Time Reading

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine β€” thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tracie Yule September 28, 2009, 5:48 pm

    I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book and all have a very similar theme…that it took them awhile to write the reviews and they weren’t quite sure what to think. I’m one of them, too πŸ™‚


    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:41 pm

      Yeah, it’s a hard book to think about and decide. I liked it, and didn’t like it, and think it deserves more consideration which I think is what probably makes it a really good book.

  • Kathy September 28, 2009, 8:08 pm

    Your review is fantastic. I love to discuss books that make me feel like that. This actually sounds like it might make a great book club book.

    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:43 pm

      I agree — there were lots of character choices that I think would be good to talk about in person. The book raises lots issues to think about, for sure.

  • Steph September 28, 2009, 8:17 pm

    I am part of the small fraction of people who actually didn’t like The Time Traveler’s Wife very much, so I hadn’t given this novel much thought. BUT your review was actually really interesting and has made me think that even if TTTW wasn’t really a good fit for me, this might be a better one. I think the concept is pretty interesting and I always enjoy a spooky read, so I might have panned this one too soon. Thanks for a great review that has made me reconsider my position!

    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:45 pm

      This book isn’t much like The Time Traveler’s Wife at all; I think it’s darker, and the human nature issues are a lot more complicated. Plus it’s more of a ghost and character story than it is a romance. I think it’d be worth a shot if you can get it from the library or something.

  • Lisa September 28, 2009, 10:37 pm

    It seemed like it would be impossible for this one to live up to expectations. And perhaps it hasn’t but it certainly seems to be able to stand on its own.

    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:46 pm

      Yes, expecting it to be like TTTW would be a big disappointment. I think initially I thought the difference was odd, but thinking on it more the book really does stand on it’s own in a very different way. I’m not sure I like it better than TTTW, but I think it’s more complicated and would be much more interesting to talk about.

  • Care September 29, 2009, 6:31 am

    I like your two and one sentence summaries. To be honest, I want to read this without ANY knowledge of it so I quit reading after that and have avoided all reviews of this to date. I fear over-saturation. Hope you don’t mind! πŸ™‚

    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:46 pm

      Not at all, I hope you can get to it spoiler free!

  • diane September 29, 2009, 7:48 am

    excellent review. i am so looking forward to this one.

    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:46 pm

      Good, I hope you enjoy it!

  • Kailana September 29, 2009, 3:13 pm

    I just got this book in the mail today! Not sure when I am going to start it, but it will be very soon!

    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:46 pm

      Yay πŸ™‚

  • J.T. Oldfield September 29, 2009, 3:30 pm

    I want it!!!!!!!!!!

    • Kim September 29, 2009, 9:47 pm

      No one was more surprised than me to get an offer for an ARC, that’s for sure. I hope you get a copy soon πŸ™‚

  • Jenny September 30, 2009, 7:06 am

    What pleased me so much about Her Fearful Symmetry is that it’s so very different to The Time Traveler’s Wife. I like that because a part of me was afraid Audrey Niffenegger might have just had the one really good book in her – but this makes me think there’ll be a lot more. πŸ™‚

    • Kim October 5, 2009, 9:11 am

      Yes, definitely! In retrospect I would have been disappointed if the book was exactly the same. I think I’ll love this book more on a second read when my expectations are a little different.

  • Trish October 3, 2009, 10:18 pm

    I’ve been really curious about this one as The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favorite books. Too bad the characters never grabbed hold of you–that’s one thing that I thought she did well in TTW (but I’m the same with characters–gotta grab me!!).

    • Kim October 5, 2009, 9:12 am

      Well, the characters in this book aren’t nearly as sympathetic as Henry and Claire were; they’re much more flawed which makes them harder to love, I suppose. I mean, they’re not all nice or considerate or even perceptive enough to see what’s going on around them. So in a sense they’re more real, but not in the way that makes you love them… if that makes sense?

      • Trish October 5, 2009, 11:34 am

        LOL–perfect sense. πŸ™‚

  • Jenny Haigh February 1, 2010, 4:09 am

    Who is this Roger you speak of?
    Also, as far as I am aware, Amsterdam is not and never has been in Denmark.
    Have you actually read the book?

    • Kim February 1, 2010, 9:33 am

      Whoops, my mistakes. Thanks for pointing them out.

  • Jenny Haigh February 1, 2010, 9:49 am

    No problem. However, I suggest actually altering all your inconsistencies. Robert / Roger now appears to have dual personality syndrome and can’t even decide his own name.
    “and manipulating it’s occupants from beyond the grave”: gold star for spotting the grammatical error in there.

    • Kim February 1, 2010, 11:25 am

      Sigh… I hope that’s all of them πŸ™‚