HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

Book Quote:

“What is more basic than the need to be known? It is the entirety of intimacy, the elixir of love, this knowing.”

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (OCT 25, 2009)

Audrey Niffenegger’s successor to her immensely popular The Time Traveler’s Wife centers around a London cemetery and the people drawn, both voluntarily and not, to its intimacies. When Elsbeth Noblin dies of leukemia, she leaves her heirs with a strange legacy of demands and unfinished business. Her now-American and estranged twin Edie no longer has the chance to reconcile with her sister. Her lover Robert, who lived in the flat below her, is bequeathed her papers and diaries, although he is too grief-stricken to read them. And Elsbeth’s twenty year old, mirror twin, American nieces, Julia and Valentina, are left everything else, including Elsbeth’s Highgate flat, on the condition that they live in it together for a full year.  From this beginning, Niffenegger weaves a story full of dependency and rebellion, of irrational fears and superstitions come true, and of twins, both real and metaphorical. Although set in contemporary times, Her Fearful Symmetry seems rooted in Henry James’ time, with gothic touches, a leaf-blown cemetery, secrets, and mysterious occurrences. This Victorian illusion is marred only by forays into the London Underground and the occasional intrusion of cell phones and computers.

Once ensconced in London, Julia and Valentina find themselves immersed in the lives of their neighbors: Martin, a man who struggles mightily with OCD and whose beloved wife, Marijke has left him because she could no longer cope with his irrational demands; Robert, an historian working on his thesis on the Highgate Cemetery across the street, where Elsbeth’s body rests in the family mausoleum; the white Kitten; and a strange presence in their new flat, which Valentina is convinced must be Elsbeth. The more practical Julia needs a lot more proof than odd cold spots and small misplaced objects.

The idea of twinship and its inequities is central to this novel: “Julia was the older twin by six (to her, very significant minutes. It was easy to imagine Julia elbowing Valentina out of the way in her determination to be first.” Valentina, called “Mouse” by her sister, is the submissive of the two; she is sickly and fearful of the unknown, not to the point where she becomes housebound like Martin, although she comes close at times. Julia is bossy and manipulative; she projects her own desires on Valentina, and so derails, time after time, her sister’s dreams. Not surprisingly, Julia is drawn to the needy Martin, and Valentina develops a crush on nurturing Robert. As Julia tricks Martin into becoming less fearful, Valentina also develops some strength as she prepares her plan to finally becomes independent of her sister.

Robert, a volunteer tour guide at the Highgate Cemetary, also becomes a guide of sorts for the novel, even though his point-of-view is one of many. He treats each character with such compassion and understanding that this novel seems to be his own legacy, his truth, and his struggle for independence. He also provides the frame to this gothic tale. Even before the other characters confront the nature of death and a possible afterlife, he muses about these ideas, recalling that as a child “he had imagined a wide, spacious emptiness, sunlit and cold, filled with invisible souls and dead pets.” He wants Elsbeth to be a ghost even if he does not believe in the possibility. His yearning for her is perhaps the most tangible emotion in the novel. His ordinary grief gives him a trustworthiness that the other characters lack, for their flaws are more extraordinary.

At times, Niffenegger gets too carried away with the thematic use of twins, and the dependence she creates between Julia and Valentina sometimes strains credulity with its extremes. Their relationship is not a subtle one. In contrast, the relationship between Martin and Marijke is wholly believable, and Martin’s struggles to conquer fear for the sake of love creates a poignant counterpoint to the selfishness exhibited by several of the other characters.

Her Fearful Symmetry, while less intense than the earlier The Time Traveler’s Wife, has its own pleasures: a leisurely unfolding of the smaller stories than compose the larger one and some narrative twists that will surprise most readers. Here, love does not conquer all as much as it damages those brave enough to be consumed by it.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0 from 597 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner; First Edition (September 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Audrey Niffenegger
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of The Time Traveler’s Wife


Novels in Pictures:

Movies from books:

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

October 25, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters, Reading Guide, Scifi, Speculative (Beyond Reality), United Kingdom

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.