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Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel Hardcover – September 29, 2009
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Amazon Best of the Month, September 2009: Following her breakout bestseller, The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger returns with Her Fearful Symmetry, a haunting tale about the complications of love, identity, and sibling rivalry. The novel opens with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who bequeaths her London flat and its contents to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister back in Chicago. These 20-year-old dilettantes, Julie and Valentina, move to London, eager to try on a new experience like one of their obsessively matched outfits. Historic Highgate Cemetery, which borders Elspeth's home, serves as an inspired setting as the twins become entwined in the lives of their neighbors: Elspeth's former lover, Robert; Martin, an agoraphobic crossword-puzzle creator; and the ethereal Elspeth herself, struggling to adjust to the afterlife. Niffenegger brings these quirky, troubled characters to marvelous life, but readers may need their own supernatural suspension of disbelief as the story winds to its twisty conclusion. --Brad Thomas Parsons
From Publishers Weekly
Niffenegger follows up her spectacular The Time Traveler's Wife with a beautifully written if incoherent ghost story. When Elspeth Noblin dies, she leaves everything to the 20-year-old American twin daughters of her own long-estranged twin, Edie. Valentina and Julia, as enmeshed as Elspeth and Edie once were, move into Elspeth's London flat bordering Highgate Cemetery in a building occupied by Elspeth's lover, Robert, and the novel's most interesting character, Martin, whose wife is long suffering due to his crushing and beautifully portrayed OCD. The girls are pallid and incurious; they wander around London and spend time with Robert and Martin and Elspeth's ghost. Valentina's developing relationship with Robert arouses mild jealousy, and when Valentina pursues her interest in fashion design, Julia disapproves, which leads Valentina and Elspeth to concoct an extreme plan to allow Valentina to lead her own life. The plan, unsurprisingly, goes awry, followed by weakly foreshadowed and confusing twists that take the plot from dull to silly. While Niffenegger's gifted prose and past success will garner readers, the story is a disappointment.
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The story centers around adult twin women, one of whom lives in Chicago and the other in London, and the people who live in the three apartments in a building adjacent to the cemetery. The twins have been estranged since they turned 25. The one in Chicago has twin daughters who come to live in one of the apartments. This is a book you won't want to put down. It moves.
In fact, I didn't Google it until after having read the book, so the Highgate I pictured was much different while reading the book, which helped me to understand that this book is not so much about the cemetery as it is the characters and the conflict they face. Niffennegger uses the cemetery as an obvious setting for her theme of death, but she does not romanticize it or bury the reader with its details. Instead, she uses it to give some spice to the novel since one of the characters is writing a thesis about the cemetery and is a tour guide there.
As I said, this book isn't just about the cemetery. It's actually about two twins who become estranged from one another for over twenty years because of a secret they share. One lives in America (Edie) and the other in London (Elspeth). Edie also has twin daughters: Julia and Valentina. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her London flat to her twin nieces with the odd request that they must come and live in it for one year before selling it, and that they cannot allow their parents to come inside. At the flat, the twins grow accustomed to traveling around London, while befriending Elspeth's boyfriend Robert, and an extreme OCD neighbor named Martin whose wife has left him because of his sickness.
The novel suffers from a lack of conflict in the first 300 pages, making it somewhat of a slow read. In face, the only conflict there is exists between the twins who become fussy with one another. Julia thinks they should be together forever, while Valentina takes up interest in Robert and wants to separate herself and become her own person. This "physical" separation soon becomes an interesting metaphor for what is about to take place. Meanwhile, Aunt Elspeth is a ghost and still living in the flat. The parts about her discovering herself are brilliantly written and kept the book interesting for me. When she finally learns how to communicate with Robert and the twins, everything changes.
While living in the flat, Julia seeks friendship in Martin and sets her sights on curing him of his illness so that he can leave the flat and go be with his wife. She does this by giving him medication and telling him it's "vitamins," but Martin is no fool and knows what the pills are. He takes them anyway because he desperately wants to beat the illness and reunite with his wife. Again, their separation is physical, unique, and different.
The biggest conflict is Robert, Elspeth's boyfriend. He wants to fall in love with Valentina, but sees too much of Elspeth in her. And when Elspeth starts to communicate with him in her old flat, he never wants to leave. He even wants to be with her, but there's no guarantee that would happen. And such is life in a way. There is no guarantee of tomorrow. Robert, and the reader, learns that sometimes we just have to let go. We have to let go of what we believe in, and of those who have gone before us if we are ever going to move forward.
While the word is never mentioned, this book is also about reincarnation. Niffenegger chooses her words wisely. She does not play into the religious sense much either. This book is also not about what we believe in as far as the afterlife goes. It's just about what is, and the author treats her storyline as such. There is no explanation. We just have to accept it as it is written. Sadly, the book got horrible reviews but I think that's because people who embraced Time Traveler's Wife were either disappointed or offended by Her Fearful Symmetry. And that's sad. I loved it. It's not a scary ghost story, and not too overwrought with romance either. I love a good ghost story or visit to a cemetery any day, so I appreciated Niffenegger's imagination and viewpoint toward the subject matter.
It was a perfect book for October, and one I'll definitely be thinking about for months to come.
Audrey Niffenegger is more than just a writer, she is an artist. And her books are her carefully constructed, intricately refined masterpieces. Her Fearful Symmetry was definitely that - a masterpiece. A haunting masterpiece. I love this woman's writing style so much that I almost think it wouldn't matter what she wrote, and yet, what she wrote was brilliant. The story was captivating and different, unique in a way I might not have even thought possible.
Twins Julia and Valentina (aka Mouse) are quirky and lovable and hatable and normal all at the same time, if this is possible. They are incredibly different with glaring similarities, and each of the girls has their own very distinct voice. As do all of the lesser characters. There was not a single one that I didn't find charming and intriguing in his own way; they were all quirky and wonderful and slightly troubled. What was most important, though, was that they were all so present, so there.
Julia and Valentina's lives are turned completely upside down when the move to London, and watching them discover their selves and their differences, discover love, I couldn't help but wish that I was living in their building, watching them grown and develop.
When we got to the twist, the complicated, confusing, beautifully amazing, totally unexpected (at least to me) twist, I was really just awe-struck. It shouldn't have come up at me out of nowhere, but it did. And then the twist twisted even more, and once again I didn't expect it.
All in all, Niffenegger's follow up to the Time Traveler's Wife is a complete success. While, in the end, it's a little too cutesy (I really can't think of a better word)to be as unique and fabulous as TTTW (it certainly isn't jumping onto my list of top books of all time), it stands on it's own as an utterly enjoyable and fascinating read.