Her Fearful Symmetry by Audry Niffenegger

March 8, 2010
By RoseRed BRONZE, Medicine Hat, Other
RoseRed BRONZE, Medicine Hat, Other
3 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Six years after the success of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger has returned with captivating, haunting second novel about the boundaries of love and loss. Set around and in the famous Highgate Cemetery of London, Her Fearful Symmetry proves that death is only the beginning.

When Elspeth Nolan dies of cancer, she leaves her estate to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. The twin girls had never met their aunt, knowing only that their mother her twin, move into their deceased aunt’s flat, never suspecting the road that would lie ahead of them. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American woman, twenty years old, with seemingly little interest in going to college or finding jobs. Instead, the twins are content to stay in their cozy home in Chicago, and have an abnormally close relationship with each other.

After moving into Elspeth’s flat, which borders London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, they come to know the building’s residents. Eccentric Martin, who is a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter who suffers from debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Marjike, who is Martin’s devoted, yet trapped wife. And Robert, Elspeth’s lover, who is writing his thesis about the cemetery. As the twins become involved in the lives of their aunt’s neighbours, they come to realize that much is still alive in Highgate.

Including their aunt, who can’t seem to leaver her old life – and apartment – behind.

What really sets this book apart is the originality of the plot. The reader never quite knows what’s coming next, right until the twisted end. From the haunted, confused thoughts of Elspeth’s ghost, to Valentina’s desire to be free of her twin, to Robert’s grief over his lost love, Niffenegger creates a captivating plot that will keep the pages turning.

And yet, this novel is just as much about the living as the dead. Niffenegger has a haunting way of portraying her characters in a way that makes them utterly believable, utterly human, without making them seem cliché or flat. Through hearing how the twins’ adventures through London have been portrayed, it’s obvious that Niffenegger has done her research, and does not want to get any fact wrong. She even worked as a tour guide for Highgate cemetery, just like fictional Robert does, and her interest in it shows through his version of the tour.

The one difficulty with this novel is the amount of time it takes to weave all of the plot threads into an intriguing storyline. It takes almost three-quarters of the novel for Valentina to decide that she wants to free herself of her twin at any cost. This decision is what starts to drive the plot to its Gothic climax, the real twist that brings the ghostly element of Her Fearful Symmetry to a peak.

While Her Fearful Symmetry may not have the commercial, star-crossed lovers appeal that The Time Traveler’s Wife has, the way it portrays love, obsession, and loss makes this a book worth picking up. It’s an accomplished and notable book, clearly written with affection, and is a must-read for fans of her previous work.

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