Audrey Niffenegger’s “Her Fearful Symmetry”

As I do with most of my books unless I’m hunting for something particular, I picked up Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry at a book sale for $2. I read The Time Traveler’s Wife a minimum of 5 years ago, and I remembered liking it, so I decided to give this one a go.

It’s an odd book to summarize in that, while it purports to be about a pair of American twin sisters, Julia and Valentina Poole, inheriting and moving to their aunt’s flat in London, it is actually about a half a dozen characters and their stories. In my opinion, the book begins slowly with the death of the girls’ aunt Elspeth, their mother Edie’s estranged twin. Elspeth wills her London apartment and most of her possessions to the girls, stipulating that they must live in the flat in London for one year before deciding to sell it or stay.

The twins, whose own relationship is highly co-dependent and marred by Julia’s attempt to control both of their lives, go to London. There they meet Robert, a cemetery worker writing his thesis who happens to be their aunt’s former lover. They also meet Martin, their upstairs neighbor, who is suffering from extreme obsessive compulsive disorder. The supernatural becomes woven in when the twins discover that their aunt’s ghost is haunting the apartment.

The characters are interesting in their own rights, if at times a bit predictable and flat. Because the perspective changes so frequently (at times featuring Valentina, Julia, Robert, Elspeth, Martin, Martin’s wife Marijke, and even Jessica, Robert’s coworker) the story seems to move slowly at times. I read it feeling as though only two or three characters ever changed or developed. The change in point of view to extremely minor characters like Marijke and Jessica never seemed altogether necessary.

The book was slow for at least the first 150 pages. I kept reading with the desire to get to the story. There was, in my opinion, too much exposition. The relationships between the characters seem awkward at times, particularly in the romantic sense. Feelings develop too quickly (at one point, in one sentence) to feel believable.

But the supernatural element of Elspeth’s ghost existence kept me interested. Niffenegger’s imagination shines as she details the day-to-day realities of Elspeth’s experience, from coming to recognize she is a ghost to learning to make herself noticed by her nieces. Some of the best writing in this book is about Elspeth being a ghost. At times, however, it was a bit nonsensical and illogical even within the parameters that Niffenegger established. For instance, Elspeth learns to manipulate physical objects but is incredibly weak. However, despite her weakness, she can close a door but is unable to lift a sheet of paper. There are definite discrepancies, but altogether this element of the story was the most enjoyable to me.

I particularly appreciated the fact that Elspeth’s “haunting” is not a scary thing. Niffenegger treats it as a matter-of-fact occurrence, which I think fit very well with the tone of the book. It’s not a terrifying, intense thrill, but rather more of a melancholy portrait of what the afterlife was like for this character.

There is also a thread of mystery as Julia and Valentina, and even Robert, attempt to determine what was the factor to separate Elspeth and Edie in the first place, as they had not seen each other in 20 years. This is hinted at in the majority of the book, but dealt with sweepingly towards the end. I think the book warranted a good edit. Omitting certain content that didn’t seem to propel the story would have helped move the plot along at a more satisfying rate.

Niffenegger writes well; her prose is descriptive and interesting. Her writing instigates mental images, which was excellent for a book set in a town like London. The book may have fallen off emotionally, as I did not necessarily feel attached to or invested in some of the characters, but it certainly was not boring. Her Fearful Symmetry may not be a fast read, but after a certain point I was interested and invested in the story. It just took a long time to get there.

Overall, I would rate it 2.5/5 (although Goodreads doesn’t allow half-star ratings, so it’s a 3 on there right now.) This is not a book to be swept away in; definitely not a stay-up-all-night-just-to-finish-because-I-have-to-know-what-happens book. I would not recommend it for everyone, but I think that it has enough enjoyable aspects to entertain some of you. Pick it up for some well-written, interesting prose and then pop over here to tell me what you think!

~Teresa

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