Saturday, January 9, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry

Publisher's Summary. Audrey Niffenegger's spectacularly compelling second novel opens with a letter that alters the fate of every character. Julia and Valentina Poole are semi-normal American twenty-year-olds with seemingly little interest in college or finding jobs. Their attachment to one another is intense. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. From a London solicitor, the enclosed letter informs Valentina and Julia that their English aunt Elspeth Noblin, whom they never knew, has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions to this inheritance: that they live in it for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the estranged Elspeth and Edie, their mother.

The girls move to Elspeth's flat, which borders the vast and ornate Highgate Cemetery, where Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, Stella Gibbons and Karl Marx are buried. Julia and Valentina come to know the living residents of their building. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword-puzzle setter suffering from crippling obsessive compulsive disorder; Marijke, Martin's devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth's elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt's neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including -- perhaps -- their aunt.

Author of one of the most beloved first novels in recent years, Niffenegger returns with an unnerving, unforgettable and enchanting ghost story, a novel about love and identity, secrets and sisterhood and the tenacity of life -- even after death.

Review. “Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.” And so begins Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. This exquisitely written first sentence of the first chapter titled, “The End,” both shocks and attracts the reader. I cannot recall a more memorable opening line from a recent novel. And it was highly effective as it immediately drew me into the plot. And what a tale Niffenegger has crafted! The story itself is replete with unpredictable plot twists and turns. Again I cannot recall a more memorable novel!

As one who has not yet read Niffenegger’s blockbuster The Time Traveler’s Wife I was able to enjoy the novel without the raised expectations (and/or assumptions) that some readers experienced. As such I can honestly say that I loved Her Fearful Symmetry even as I also confess that I did not love the main characters (apart from the OCD neighbor Martin) or the ending. Normally, these factors would probably negate my enjoyment of the novel, but such is not the case because Niffenegger’s tale is that engaging!

This modern-gothic, character-driven novel is set in London and, more specifically, Highgate Cemetery. The famous cemetery is central to the plot and becomes an additional character in the story. In fact the novel did such a thorough job of incorporating its essence into the story that I now hope to visit it someday!

Her Fearful Symmetry is a well-written unique story that is hard to put down!

Publisher: Scribner; Simon & Schuster(September 29, 2009), 416 pages
Review Copy Provided Courtesy of the publisher.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Not liking the main characters, but still enjoying the book, well then it must be good.

    Even if I cried my eyes out when reading the 1st.

    Oh how do you get all these cool books from Scribner? :)

  3. I liked this book (especially Martin and his OCD). Great review.

  4. Blodeuedd: I receive books periodically from Simon & Schuster because I am a member of its book club advisory group. I'm not sure if the group is still open (I've been a member for awhile), but if you want an email to contact them let me know.

  5. Hm, well they do have some cool book so I guess I could try to email :) Thanks

  6. This is on my to-read list...great review!

  7. I loved this book when I read it in Jan. Like you, I didn't like some of the characters. The ending (particularly that horrific event) left me feeling aghast and disgusted, but I loved this book, and it's very rare that we can love a story while not loving what happens. Here's where I raved about it.