Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Posted by in Books, review

When Her Fearful Symmetry came out this year and all the reviews started to pour in, I knew that I was going to have to wait to read it.  The results were of resounding disappointment – it was no where near as good as Time Traveler’s Wife, to most it was mediocre, to others it was downright infuriating.  I wanted to let that sit a while before I read this book, and I knew that I was going to read it eventually because Time Traveler’s Wife remains one of my all-time favorite books.  Sitting here, with Her Fearful Symmetry read and this review waiting to be written, I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel at all.

When Elspeth dies, she leaves a very unconventional will.  She leaves her flat, right next to Highgate Cemetery, to her twin nieces that she has never met (Valentina and Julia).  But Elspeth does not completely depart from this world; she haunts the flat and has ongoing conversations with her former lover Robert and the twins.  There is also Martin, the twins’ OCD neighbor.

What I can say about it is that I never didn’t enjoy reading it.  As I was reading it, I thought the novel was interesting and well-written.  There were elements of Time Traveler’s Wife that I loved, repackaged and still fresh.  There was the supernatural element of the ghost story, which I thought was done quite successfully.  There is Niffenegger’s gorgeous language and her perfect sense of place.  I have never been to Highgate Cemetery, I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen pictures of it, but she did a fabulous job explaining it and completely putting me there.  The best thing about this novel?  Martin and the ending.  I thought Martin’s storyline was endlessly fascinating, especially at the beginning, and I wanted more from him.  I also loved Robert; he was flawed and another favorite to read about.  The ending of this novel was, for me, exactly what was needed.  It does not end happily, not really, and there were plenty of twists that I did not see coming.  I’m so glad that Niffenegger ended this one as she did, because otherwise the novel would have suffered greatly for it.

Where Her Fearful Symmetry fails is in making me care about Valentina and Julia.  Much of the plot revolves around Valentina and how she feels suffocated by her relationship with Julia, but I honestly don’t know why, other than the fact that Julia wanted to drop out of college and somehow dragged Valentina with her.  The pathos of their relationship is never adequately explained and I needed that explanation to connect with the twins.  Instead, I connected much more completely with Robert and Martin, whose complexities are explained fully and simply.  Instead of coming off as trapped and tragic, Valentina comes off as immature and whiny.   I wish that there hadn’t been any twins in this novel at all, but that we had just gotten to see how the lives of Martin and Robert played out after the death of their mutual friend, who happens to be haunting her flat.

Even with that complaint, I still really enjoyed reading Her Fearful Symmetry.  I particularly liked this quote near the beginning of the novel:

James said, “I saw a ghost once. [...] I was quite small, only a lad of six.  [...] So, I was put to bed upstairs.  I remember lying there with the blanket pulled up to my chin, my mother kissing me goodnight, and there I was in the dark, not knowing what terrible thing might be ready to slink out from the wardrobe and smother me…”

Jessica smiled.  Robert thought it might be a smile for the morbidly fantastical imaginations of children.

“So what happened?”

“I fell asleep.  But later that night I woke up.  There was moonlight coming in through the window, and the shadows of the tree branches fell onto the bed, waving gently in the breeze.”

“And then you saw the ghost?”

James laughed.  “Dear chap, the branches were the ghost.  There weren’t any trees within a hundred yards of that house.  They’d all been cut down years before.  I saw the ghost of a tree.”

Robert thought about it.  “That’s rather elegant.  I was expecting ghouls.”

Well, that’s just it, you see.  I think perhaps if that sort of thing does happen – ghosts – it must be more beautiful, more surprising than all these old tales would have us believe.” (62)

So, yes, I recommend this book.  It is a good ghost story, but it definitely fails on some levels.  When I read Time Traveler’s Wife, I sobbed at the end for Claire and Henry because I felt like I knew them.  In that sense, Her Fearful Symmetry is a disappointment when you compare it to that first novel.  However, if Niffenegger had written this book under a different name and I never tried to compare the two?  Maybe I would feel a little differently.  And an absolutely perfect ending?  Hard to come by.

So go read  this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: The Book Lady’s Blog, S. Krishna’s Books, Devourer of Books, Books on the Brain, Stainless Steel Droppings, Dear Author, Fantasy Book Critic, Rhapsody in Books, Literate Housewife, At Home With Books, 5 Minutes for Books, eclectic/eccentric, Care’s Online Book Club, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Presenting Lenore, books i done read, Jenny’s Books, Savidge Reads.

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