Friday, October 9, 2009

a review of "Her Fearful Symmetry"

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
(Scribner, ISBN 978-1439165393)

Death, love, and obsession are at the center of this book from the sad opening scene to the very creepy last, our constant companions in this rather bizarre tale. The story begins with a death when, after a long, painful illness, middle aged Elspeth Noblin shuffle off this mortal coil. But while she is happy to be rid of the pain, she is not ready to be done with this world. As she hovers above her hospital deathbed, watching her grieving boyfriend, she realized that she might not have to.

"All the regrets and guilt and longing of her life came over her. No, she thought. I 'won't go.
One promise she certainly makes good on, because Elspeth, in all her spectral glory, is the central character of the book.

To the surprise of everyone, with two conditions, Elspeth has left her considerable fortune and her huge apartment, overlooking London's famous Highgate Cemetery, to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, the daughters of her own estranged twin sister, Edie. The two conditions are that the girls, when they shortly reach the age of 21, will move from their suburban Chicago home and live in the apartment for a year. Elspeth's younger boyfriend, Robert, will be their downstairs neighbor. The second condition is that they will not allow their parents to enter the apartment. It seems there are secrets to be hidden, not the least of which is why the older twins have not seen each other for almost 20 years. And then there is the fact, which of course she was unaware of when she made the will, that Elspeth, or at least her ghost, will be residing in the apartment as well. Elspeth will be there, growing stronger, more knowledgeable in the abilities of ghosts, and casting her influence over Robert, still desperately in love with her, and the twins, especially the weaker, both physically and emotionally, Valentina. All of this will lead to a very shocking end.

This a very creepy book, but I don't really mean that in a necessarily good way. Don't get me wrong. I love creepy. After all, two of my favorite writers are Dean Koontz and Flannery O'Connor, two authors who excel at creepy. But this book is creepy without the grace, the goodness, that is ultimately at the heart of the work of those writers. Bottom line, all of the main characters of this book are rather unlikable. They are selfish and aimless and obsessed , making decisions that seem irrational at best and silly at worst. For example, we are to believe that Robert is totally in love with Elspeth, yet are never given any reason to know why. In fact, he says of her at one point,
"Elspeth isn't nice. Even when she was alive she wasn't very- she was witty and beautiful and fantastically original in- certain ways, but now that she's dead she seems to have lost some essential quality- compassion, or empathy, some human thing- I don't think you should trust her, Valentina."
But then why is Robert still so obsessed, so naive as to go along with her? The twins are also oddly unlikable, purposeless, obsessed with each other, still dressing alike, rarely apart, holding hands and sleeping together.
Yes, a bit creepy.

Actually, the only likable characters are their upstairs neighbor Martin, a very intelligent man with a very terrible case of OCD and his wife Marijke, who loves him deeply but must leave him to save her own sanity. Their story, about the length that real love will go to save that love was, for me, the brightest point in the book. The only likable thing about Julia is her friendship with Martin. Then there is the neighboring Highgate Cemetery, which is itself, in all it's overgrown, damp, mossy glory, a fascinating presence. I wish the rest of the characters had a touch of it's charm for me.

I must admit that I have not yet read Niffenegger's very popular previous book, The Time Traveler's Wife, and while I did not love this book, fans of that one may find it more appealing than I did. But even for Her Fearful Symmetry's issues, Niffenegger is a good enough and original enough writer that I look forward to checking that one out in the future.


  1. I haven't read The Time Traveler's Wife, either. I'm on the hold list for this one, so it will be a while before it gets to me. The synopsis is pretty interesting, but I don't like unlikeable characters very much.

  2. I am intrigued! You know, EW gave this book a C+. I did buy it on its release day on my Kindle, and intend to get to it within the next few days. I've not read TTW yet either, so I have no basis of comparison. We shall see...

  3. Belle, am I just shallow, or should a novel have someone you can identify with?

    Sandy, C+ sounds just about right..or maybe C-...

  4. I find it interesting that so many bloggers are reading this book now because I didn't find the summary very interesting. And, although I liked TTW I didn't love it, though I seem to be in the minority with that opinion.
    I always enjoy your reviews because I know I'll get an honest assessment. I like creepy good but creepy bad is a bummer!

    Thanks Caite!

  5. Amy, I think TTTW was just so popular (hopefully for some good reason) and then the movie came out (which I did not see) that a lot of people were waiting for it to come out.

  6. The reviews for this book seem to be all over the place, so I can't decide if I want to read it or not.

  7. Well done, Madam. I just finished reading this and I was a HUGE fan of "The Time Traveler's Wife" -- I think you really ought to read it as it was marvelous. One of my "favorite books of all time." I agree with you about some of your points about "Her Fearful Symmetry" -- I thought Martin and Marjilke were a bit of a foil for Robert and Elsepth -- though I wasn't quite clear why Julia and Martin got along so well. I do think Niffenegger is a gifted writer and I gave myself over to the story as much as I could but it wasn't nearly as satisfying as "Time Traveler's Wife." But I did like the end ... it was kind of a good way to end things I thought. I'm still letting the book sift around in my head until I write my review.

  8. Kathy..I think it is worth reading...but don't rush.

    Jenners, I find if I let it sift in my brain too long, it tends to just sift itself right out...
    Actually, although Julia is suppose to be the 'meaner' twin, I like her a lot more. maybe that is why I didn't find her friendship with Martin Robert and Valentina..that was weak.

  9. I thought it was strange, and a lot of the after death "life" didn't really work for me. Still, like I said in my review, I was never bored!

  10. no, I was not bored, but still not sure I "liked" it.


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