(Her) Fearful (Symmetry)


I was looking forward to reading Audrey Niffenegger’s  Her Fearful Symmetry, and I was seriously contemplating buying a copy (20% off at National Book Store using the Laking National Card) when my boss lent me her copy to review.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife; I remember seeing it on a display shelf, reading the blurb, buying it straightaway (those were the days when my TBR was at a manageable figure I could count with my fingers!) and peeling off the plastic wrap as soon as I crossed the threshold!

I also have Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters (one of her two illustrated novels) which showcases beautiful and haunting aquatint art, albeit the bizarre story.

Like many others I was waiting for her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, and wondering what was in store this time around…

Modern-day gothic story

fearful-symmetry3In “Her Fearful Symmetry,”  20-year old twins Julia and Valentina Poole are enjoying a life of leisure in America when they receive word that their estranged aunt Elspeth Noblin, their mother’s twin sister, has passed away and bequeathed to them the bulk of her estate.

Effective on their 21st birthday, the twins are the new owners of their aunt’s London flat, which borders the legendary Highgate Cemetery, home to the graves of Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Stella Gibbons, and Karl Marx. Elspeth has only two provisions: that they live in the apartment for at least a year before they sell it, and that their parents not set foot in it.

Eager for independence, the girls move to London to claim their inheritance, managing to work their way into the lives of the other residents in the building: the obsessive-compulsive Martin and his dejected wife Marijke; and the scholarly Robert, their aunt’s lover; as well as — hold your breath — the restless presence of Elspeth’s ghost right in their flat.

As Julia and Valentina get to know more about their mysterious aunt, their own relationship unravels and family secrets are revealed, building up a modern-day gothic story that explores love, life, family, and the special bond between twins.

The story reminds me a bit of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, with the focus on twin-ness and the knot of family secrets that revolve around it.

From benign to sinister

“Her Fearful Symmetry” is a vast departure from Niffenegger’s first novel, with a pervasive bleakness to it that musters a longing for the warmth and sincerity that made The Time Traveler’s Wife a compelling read.

I liked the instant connection Henry and Clare make with the reader in TTW, and how they are very easy to relate to and empathize with and I was hoping for more of the same in Her Fearful Symmetry.

Unfortunately, as protagonists, Julia and Valentina Poole come across as dry and uninspiring, failing to evoke sympathy in the reader, while Elspeth makes a tiresome ghost, bordering on cheesy when she tries out the usual ghostly tricks – flickering lightbulbs, messages in the dust, and Ouija board conversations.

Surprisingly, I find that it is the support cast that is better written – Martin, the charming crossword puzzle maker crippled by his compulsions, is dreadfully interesting, and it was easier for me to empathize with his estranged wife Marijke (who felt trapped by her husband’s fears) than the protagonists. And although Robert tends to go overboard with his grieving, I like him as the cemetery scholar who painstakingly recreates the lives of graveyard’s inhabitants to keep their memories alive.

The Highgate Cemetery (where Niffenegger is a volunteer guide) provides a fascinating and atmospheric backdrop for a story inspired by Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman In White.” The graveyard tours and the history of the cemetery were actually my favorite parts of the book, and I appreciate how Niffenegger took time to make it authentic with heavy research on the cemetery, which in fact led her to become a Highgate volunteer guide herself!

Niffenegger’s evocative prose is up to par in terms of composition, but I found it difficult to digest the direction the story takes.

The first two-thirds of the book is pretty much uneventful, and when the story picks up, it gets rather unwieldy and requires a strong suspension of disbelief, even for a ghost story.  The twin subplots are tired, too — a love triangle involving twins; mistaken identity; and an extreme twin-ness that’s hard to believe.

There is, perhaps, one set of twins too many in this convoluted plot, and it goes from benign to sinister in a series of absurd and unsettling twists concentrated towards the end of the book. The ending was both disturbing and disappointing; I don’t remember the last time I encountered anything so ghastly.

And really, who keeps their deepest secret (that they’ve kept for practically half their life and to their death) in a red envelope marked “big, dark, and horrible secret” taped to the back of their diary?!?

Sigh. I appreciate the  valiant attempt from Niffenegger, but I fear that she might have been too hasty in writing this after The Time Traveler’s Wife. Her Fearful Symmetry had a lot of potential, especially with a setting so grand, and I’m sorely disappointed at how it turned out.


My copy: borrowed from my boss, and I don’t think I will get one

My rating: 2/5 stars

28 thoughts on “(Her) Fearful (Symmetry)”

  1. Your review hit the spot. I found Elspeth to be rather annoying in her ghostly plot to make herself known to the twins and none of the characters really stood out from the other. It’s really hard to mask my disappointment considering how much I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife. But I felt your review was spot on. Hopefully Ms. Niffenegger will grace us with another epic tale like TTW in the near future.

  2. I’ve seen some wild reviews for this book. I’m very curious about it and hope to read it one day. Not on my top ten more like top 50 hahahahaa
    Great review!

  3. Thank you for that two stars. Because I have been hating this book since its tenth page (had to finish it, Chronic Book Finisher, ugh)–and no one seems to agree with me. So, haha, nakahanap ako ng kakampi. I can’t even write a decent entry on my impressions of the book, it was THAT traumatic for me. Hay.

    In a comment, I was asked what I thought of the novel, and this is what I said (in real life, I was stuttering):

    “Oh goodness, where can I begin? I’ve been so overwhelmed with how terrible the whole thing is, plus, no one seems to agree with me, haha.

    I’m rarely snarky (I think), but off the top of my head:

    1) The exposition on the twins’ (two sets) relationship with each other, with everybody else, read like a cheap Alice Hoffman (on her better days) knock-off. By the end of the book, it was just a V.C. Andrews attempting to make its $5M advance.

    2) Lazy writing and characterization. Senselessness can be an endearing trait when it’s a fatal flaw (in the case of one character, Martin the OCD-stricken neighbor), but NOT when it’s a way of life (in the case of the rest of the characters).

    I read HFS as part of the readathon. I could’ve put it down, but I’m one of those stubborn souls who *needs* to finish a book.

    Again, I’m rarely this snarky, haha. Am thinking of rereading “The Time-Traveler’s Wife” to see if HFS can’t completely erase that book’s reputation. :)”


    Okay. I totally spammed you comment box. But I’m just so RELIEVED someone doesn’t like the book!

    – Sasha

  4. I finished this book last week and really liked it – this is great thing with blogs!

    It might even be in my to 10 read in 2009.

    I agree with you about the young twins, they were not an important part of the story. This was Robert and Elspeth’s story.

  5. @Sasha – your comment was amusing.

    I was gnashing my fist in my mouth throughout the ending; I could’t believe what I was reading! But like you, I just have to finish books I start

    I would love to read your full review, do let me know if you have it up on your blog :)

  6. @Mari- Yeah, in the end it really was about them. I wish Elspeth’s ghost could have been more noble, though.

    @Michelle- There were some parts I enjoyed too, but not enough to swing the book for me; I just found some parts totally unacceptable.

    But Mari is right, that’s the great thing about book blogs, you can find a host of diverse opinions about a book :)

  7. And Led Tv Fanatic was considered as someone who sends spam. ^_^

    Anyway… I bought this book last monday (that would be yesterday). I was planning to read it on the holidays (by holidays, I meant about the incoming long weekend – October 31, November 1 and November 2).

    Would it be better if I spend my long weekend searching for another book for me to read on another long weekend?

    I hope this book would keep me away from boredom. I hope.

  8. @Piropiro- Glad to see you back. Hmm, Im not one to deter people from reading, as we may have different tastes in books. But if you’re looking for excitement you might want to consider a different book.

    I can recommend Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Both books have been known to appeal to a wide variety of audiences, and I’m a big fan of both of them :)

  9. I agree with your recommendations of “Shadow of the Wind” and “The Hunger Games”.

    I have been anticipating “Her Fearful Symmetry”, and even with the less then stellar reviews, I look forward to reading it. Just not as optimistic that it’s going to be great. However, I am glad she did something different. I like when author’s challenge themselves and don’t get stuck in the same rut.

  10. @Sasha- will check it out

    @Scott- I do like that it’s a different book, it just fell short with execution…

    @3m- Ok, let me know after you’ve read it :)

  11. I’ll buy those books next time. (by next time, I meant the next time I receive my paycheck). I saw huge billboards about the Hunger Games Trilogy while going to work.

  12. Hi, Blooey! My supposedly ARC of this book is now gathering dust in my room. I also haven’t read The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I feel is very cheesy. Hehehe.

  13. @Piropiro – Ayt, let me know when you’ve read them. I have reviews on both books in this blog if you want to see them.

    @Peter – Haha, all the guys I know tend to have that reaction. But TTW is good cheese, perfect for every girl who’s ever been in love :D

  14. Hi there Literary Stew! I think the ending of this book is one of the worst I’ve ever read. I’ve never felt so revolted at a book’s ending before.

  15. Thankyou for linking back to your review which I was very interested to read, as your thoughts were similar to mine.
    Thankyou also for commenting on my review of Her Fearful Symmetry, I am not sure if you subscribe to comments but I have now responded there if you are interested:)

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