Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger


Book Description (Amazon):

Julia and Valentina Poole are twenty-year-old sisters with an intense attachment to each other. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. Their English aunt Elspeth Noblin has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions for this inheritance: that they live in the flat for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the girls’ aunt Elspeth and their mother, Edie.

 The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders the vast Highgate Cemetery, where Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Stella Gibbons, and other luminaries are buried. Julia and Valentina become involved with their living neighbors: Martin, a composer of crossword puzzles who suffers from crippling OCD, and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. They also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including—perhaps—their aunt.

My Review:

The executive summary: this book was odd.

I started out liking the book. Elsbeth seemed a strange, intriguing character, especially with her will. I was sad to see her die so early in the book, and I was curious about how the book would lead from there. I found the situation with Edie receiving Elsbeth’s letters quite entertaining (and in hindsight, I wish some of that humor had continued throughout the book).

After Elsbeth dies, we truly meet Martin and Marijke, who might be the only genuine characters in the entire book. I found their side story to be the most interesting, heartwarming part of the book (and also wondered why their story was included as they don’t contribute much to the “real story”). We find out that Robert works at Highgate Cemetery and is (understandably) devastated about Elsbeth’s death. (I have never been to London and had no idea until the end of the book that Highgate Cemetery was such a big deal. The author seemed to assume everyone knew that…) And we are also introduced to Edie’s dysfunctional family–her husband Jack and the twins Julia and Valentina.

We then find out that Elsbeth is not fully gone. She is a ghost and is trapped in her flat. For the most part, this is well imagined by Niffenegger—that if you became a ghost, you would grow and change just as a newborn child would. However, it was never really explained why she was stuck in her flat (get back to that later), and she never did any funny pranks as a ghost, just really creepy things…

Once the twins finally move to London (all the family drama just annoyed me), you realize Robert is not at all well-adjusted. He follows the twins around lurking at them instead of introducing himself like a normal person. (why?!) The twins are their same weird self-absorbed selves and eventually Elsbeth starts communicating with them starting with helping them catch a kitten (named Little Kitten of Death). For some reason (not explained), only Valentina can see Elsbeth, and they develop a closer connection than Julia does. At the same time, Valentina is also developing a relationship with Robert (when he finally had to stop being a lurker) so it becomes this weird ghostly love triangle.

Then it gets weirder. Little kitten of death (whose name I thought was funny at the beginning but it turned out it was just disturbing) is playing with Elsbeth when Elsbeth accidentally removes its soul, and then puts the soul back into its body. Um, what?! At the same time, Valentina is trying to figure out a way to get away from her controlling twin Julia (which was weird because Julia was always the one wanting to do things so she didn’t seem that controlling to me most of the time) and re-enroll in school. But she cannot figure out any logical way of separating from Julia (like, you know, talking to her or being reasonable) so she solicits Elsbeth’s help. Valentina easily convinces Elsbeth to take her soul out so that she can fake her death and then reinvent herself without Julia. (Really? that’s your first thought!) Robert helps with the details of the burial and cemetery stuff while Elsbeth practices on the kitten. Well, practice isn’t the right word because she tried one more time after the first and the kitten’s soul escaped so the kitten died. Still, idiot Valentina thought it was OK to proceed.

Stupidly, they go through with the plan. Valentina’s soul is “too weak” to be replaced in her body, so Elsbeth puts her own soul in Valentina’s body to get back together with wimpy Robert (creepy ghost threeway success!). Valentina’s soul reconnects with kitten’s soul and they figure out how to leave the flat (why didn’t Elsbeth figure this out?) via Julia’s mouth to fly around on crows (again, what?!)

In the end, Julia helps Martin reconnect with his wife (by sort of tricking him into taking OCD medicine) and she starts a relationship with Theo, Robert’s son. Edie tells her husband the truth, which he already knew, and adds to the total confusion of the twin story line. Elsbeth in Valentina’s body has a baby but Robert finds his spine and leaves her.


2.5 Stars. I would only read this if you have to. Or you have no other books and a free copy of this one.

The general premise of the book was interesting, but the execution wasn’t up to snuff. None of the (main) characters were remotely likeable or interesting. The story line seemed to bumble around with too many unrealistic moments and accidental happenings to make the story come together easier. The ending was wrapped up too quickly—half of it being predictable (Elsbeth) and half of it being completely crazy (Valentina flying away on a crow). The one genuine plus is that the writing style is well crafted and despite the storyline, you can still enjoy the words.


Filed under 2.5 stars, Book Review

3 responses to “Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

  1. Charlotte Busch

    I don’t think I want to borrow this book.

  2. Have you read the Time Travellers Wife? I thought that had some promise but failed when it truly came to it, hoped this one would be different. Seems not.

    • I have. Probably about 3 years ago though, so my specific recollections of it are a bit hazy! But based on what I remember, I liked Time Traveler’s Wife better (than Fearful Symmetry). I thought the story was more unique and more cohesive. But I didn’t LOVE it. I think part of it was the ending, but also I remember feeling it was a bit hard to get into because I started the book once, shelved it, and then restarted and finished it (because I kept hearing so much about it). I don’t think I’ve had any books that I loved that I shelved in the middle…

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