Customer Reviews: Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon September 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
After The Time Traveler's Wife (TTTW), this book has been much anticipated by so many, including myself.

That puts a lot of pressure on the author as well as the reader. I had to begin the book with an open mind to read it as a stand alone and not a 'follow-up' to The Times Traveler's Wife.

The story begins with the untimely death of Elspeth who leaves behind her lover, Robert. Robert has an apartment (flat) in the same building as Elspeth and is devastated by her death. Elspeth leaves her London flat to her nieces (twins living in the United States) under the condition that their mother (Elspeth's twin, Edie) never steps foot in the flat. This begs the question of what could have happened between the two sisters (Elspeth and Edie) to cause such tension and need for control. The 20 year-old twins, full of quirky thoughts and behaviors, move to London and Robert, intrigued and haunted by their resemblance to Elspeth, stalks them for awhile before eventually meeting up with them during a tour he was giving at Highgate Cemetery. The story really develops with the reemergence of Elspeth as a broody ghost, destined to stay in her flat watching over and desperately trying to communicate with her nieces as they begin their new lives in London.

As I began this book, I was immediately caught up in Ms. Niffenegger's wonderful ability to create characters that become amazingly real right from the start. She has an uncanny way of creating relationships built on such a deep love that we yearn to be involved with those in our own lives with the same depth of feeling.

The story begins beautifully (and sad), the concept is wonderful and the characters are richly developed. Ms. Niffenegger tells the story in a unique way and leaves mysteries and unanswered questions for readers to want to continue.

The writing is excellent, there are a variety of characters to love or at least be intrigued with. The scenery is well developed and the inclusion of Highgate Cemetery (and much of its history) makes for a fascinating setting. I think it is because most of the story is set in London that Ms. Niffenegger has chosen to use British spelling throughout the book. It is not a distraction though. As someone whose family is from England, there were many references to places, stores, and food items, that were familiar to me but may not be to others. I don't think these references will confuse the reader but for me, it was like going home for awhile.

One of the characters, Martin, has severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and won't even leave his flat. Ms. Niffenegger must have done a lot of research to create this character so realistically. She does a great job developing a believable (albeit extreme) relationship between the twins - both sets - who are the main characters.

As with TTTW, there were moments that I felt uneasy, events that were a little out line with the flow of the story and the personality of the characters. There were things that happened that I just couldn't see going that way (or maybe didn't want to go in that direction). Unfortunately, these events, conversations, or actions, occasionally got in the way of the story. I'm sure Ms. Niffenegger understands her characters better than I do but when they are developed so richly, we feel we know them.

The story is very creative and unique but takes some turns in the second half that detract from the beauty of the storytelling. It was worth finishing but left me a little unsettled.

Overall, Ms. Niffenegger is a wonderful and original storyteller. She has a great ability to build characters in depth and create relationships deep with emotion. She has researched all aspects of her story well. This book is worth reading, but before reading, set aside any great hope of surpassing TTTW.

As an added note, if I think of books I would give a 4 star rating, this is probably a better book but in comparison to her first novel, it is not a 5 star book. It puts the reviewer in a difficult position - to rate compared to other books, or expectations.
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on October 4, 2009
Let me just say, I have NEVER written a review before but this book forced me to. I loved the characters, I loved the set up, I loved everything about it until it just got stupid. And I don't mean we are walking along normal street and all of a sudden the supernatural smacks into you, I don't care for that. No, you are well aware paranormal activity is to be expected from the beginning. The incongruity is in the way the characters are allowed to behave in the last 1/3 of the book. I have read other reviews that said it was like she was on a deadline and didn't put the time into the last part. But I felt it was more like not only that but also someone else who was a much worse writer had to finish the job, someone who did not really know the characters or even care about them. It is almost worth reading just to get to know the characters but I am so upset with the way everything turned out I cannot recommend it, AT ALL. It was ridiculous. Not "Oh, there was some twisty surprise at the end I didn't care for" ridiculous, but "Oh, was that supposed to be a twisty surprise because it makes no sense and is that all there is?? Really???" ridiculous.
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on August 4, 2010
I cannot write a review of this book without talking about spoilers, so if you're considering reading the book, stop here.

I have never had a book evoke so much anger in me. Learning that I'd been lied to for years as a child about Santa Claus didn't piss me off this much. This potentially great book was a waste of the authors time and all the paper it's printed on. What started out as great story turned completely sewer-worthy about halfway through by one huge stupid idea that was ridiculous as well as selfish and completely void of empathy and logic.
Two young twins moved into a flat in London located on the property of a famous cemetery where prominent people were buried. The flat was willed to the twins by their Aunt whom they'd never met. They soon discovered the Aunt's ghost was also living in the flat, but once they could communicate with her, all was friendly. Along with other interesting residents in the building which included the Aunt's boyfriend downstairs, and an OCD man upstairs who's wife had just left him, it made for a very interesting story. The Aunt and the twins' mother - also twins, had not spoken in years, and the secrecy surrounding their estranged relationship, in addition to the developing relationships between the twins and building tenants, gave the story plenty of mystery and possible story lines. But after the ghostly Aunt accidentally caught the resident kitten's spirit, pulling it out and rendering him dead, and then re-installing it, (yes, I'm not kidding) the twin who wanted nothing more than to be free of her over-bearing sister, conjured a scheme to be temporarily killed and brought back to life so she could escape. I was baffled by this ridiculous idea and thought it would be cast off as that, ridiculous! The dead-Aunt's boyfriend who lived downstairs had to be involved to move and hide the lifeless body and keep it cold, and then return it to the flat so the Aunt could put the spirit back in it - all without anyone noticing. I must mention here that the boyfriend had also started dating this twin. Insane, yes? YES!!!! Especially since the Aunt had practiced on the poor kitten a second time and failed, but they went through with it anyway!!! OMG!!! What happened here? I thought for sure the boyfriend would REFUSE to help with such an elaborate and cockamamy plot. I'm all for odd and interesting turns in a storyline but this was a loser of an idea. And just when you think they might pull it off, what happens? The spirit in the body is not the young girl, but the Aunt herself - who it turns out was actually the real mother of the twins. Motherly love or what? OH MY GOD. How wrong can this go? Wait, there's more! So the two original spirits are back together to live happily ever after - right? Wrong. The boyfriend's guilt got the better of him. He couldn't handle what an evil deed he'd participated in, especially having to look at the face of the budding relationship he could have had, but who was now inhabited by a much older spirit. So he eventually left her. PREGNANT! LOL - I'm still in disbelief and disgust. I'm still angry!!! Oh, I almost forgot. The dead twin was eventually freed from the apartment by being carried in her sisters mouth to the out-of-doors and was apparently happy. That's ...........nice (?)
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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's a bad sign, indeed, when a familiar and particularly damning bit of British slang pops into my head as I am reading a novel--the unfortunate word is "twee." The word can be merely descriptive (too cute, kitschy) or it can be part of a judgment. In this case, it is both.

Fans of The Time Traveler's Wife will be eager to read Audrey Niffenegger's second novel and nothing I write should discourage them from that. There are undeniable pleasures in Her Fearful Symmetry--there is a strong sense of local color, and that locality is a particularly appealing part of London. There are several eccentric characters who are at least fun to get to know--at first. And for anyone who really likes ghost stories, there is a ghost story, even including whole sections located in the mind of the main ghost, so we are seeing the world with a ghost's eye view during several important parts of the narrative.

Ms. Niffenegger is also skillful at shifting points of view and perspective, building a degree of suspense as she does so. But she builds that very slowly, indeed. I enjoy the kind of "classic" narrative that builds slowly, gradually dealing out the details of the characters' lives and revealing by steps the important information that advances the plot. But there can be too much of that, and I have to say that well over half of this novel passes slowly by before much of the potential suspense and interest begins to take hold; in the final quarter of the novel, the potential intensity of the story grabs the reader who has been extremely patient until that point.

The main characters of Her Fearful Symmetry are two sets of twins, mother/aunt and the daughters/nieces of the mother twin. At the beginning of the novel, one of the elder twins dies, leaving her estate to the younger twins, who are required to move from Chicago to London to live in the flat which is part of the substantial bequest. That sets in motion the ghost story. The younger twins are reminiscent of the "innocent abroad" American women so prominent in the fiction of Henry James or, more recently, Diane Johnson. Both James and Johnson, however, develop those characters in the context of richly portrayed and complex social contexts; in this case, the isolation of the twins is a necessary part of the ghost story, so there is very little social context to enliven the narrative. The other major characters are two men, both very eccentric in a variety of ways, one of whom lives in the flat above the twins, the other, who was the dead older twin's lover when she died, lives in the flat below.

Much of the opening half of the novel portrays characters not meeting each other, not communicating with each other (though italic sentences frequently let the reader in on what they are thinking), and not doing much of anything except more or less spying on each other. All this is tied to the strong theme of the novel, the difficulty of "knowing" another person, and that is tied, of course, to the even more powerful and challenging theme, the difficulty of knowing oneself. The latter is particularly problematic, we are let to understand, for identical twins who grow up together, frequently mistaken for each other and hardly knowing how to separate themselves from each other. This does go on and on, and the novel seems to be suggesting to us that it is really very important for such division and assertion of individual identity to take place--or dreadful things may happen.

The "twee" quality comes from some of the cutesy observations and behavior both of the younger twins and of the ghost. (Along with the echoes of James and Wharton and Johnson, as well as other twin stories, I could not help but remember Dorothy Baker's much more powerful novel about twins, Cassandra at the Wedding.) There is a potentially interesting effort to make colors--of clothing, of furniture, of faces and bodies--carry some symbolic weight; the potential divisions between both sets of twins are materialized in their very different senses of style in clothing and decoration, but this finally adds little to the narrative, feeling sometimes laid on.

Unlike The Time Traveler's Wife, which had the constant enlivening energy of its tricky premise as a time-travel story, this novel feels loaded down by its immature and eccentric characters, who are finally not interesting enough in themselves to keep the reader engaged until the real ghost story, with its horrific twists, kicks in. Even in that section of the novel, there is entirely too much moping about among the characters; the one redemptive development and a related possibility are at least appealing, but feel disconnected from the main line of the novel.

Though this is not Niffenegger's second book, it is her second--sophomore--novel. Unfortunately, it suffers from sophomoritis. Fans will enjoy it. Others might want to wait fo the author's next novel.
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on May 22, 2010
** spoiler alert ** Dear lord. I can't believe this came from the same person that wrote one of my favorite books of all time, "The Time Traveler's Wife".

*** The remainder of this review contains spoilers. ***

First, the only character I even remotely cared for was Martin. That's not good since he was a peripheral character. I was completely squicked out by the twins -- dressing the same and sleeping together at age 21? Gross. Creepy. Not even remotely normal.

Dear lord. I can't believe this came from the same person that wrote one of my favorite books of all time, "The Time Traveler's Wife".

*** The remainder of this review contains spoilers. ***

First, the only character I even remotely cared for was Martin. That's not good since he was a peripheral character. I was completely squicked out by the twins -- dressing the same and sleeping together at age 21? Gross. Creepy. Not even remotely normal.

I could suspend belief about the ghost stories. I had no problem at all with that. However, Valentina's only way to leave her sister was to fake her death? What the what????? Completely unbelievable. Not in this day and age of understanding what a body goes through once it dies -- I couldn't suspend THAT much disbelief. And I was completely disgusted when Elspeth took over Valentina's body. I will never believe she didn't do it on purpose, and apparently, neither did Richard, because he just ups and leaves her after getting her pregnant -- what kind of man allows all this to happen and then LEAVES his child? What happened to him -- did he disappear? Die? Go find Valentina? And oh, not to mention how distasteful his relationship with Valentina was -- way too incestuous for my taste, and for everyone to just gloss over that made my stomach turn.

Look, I read a lot (a LOT) of books in ALL sorts of genres but this one just made me mad that I even finished it. The one thing I got out of it was an interest in researching Highgate Cemetary. And that is IT.

Do NOT recommend. At all.
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on October 30, 2009
I join the readers who found Niffenegger's book "The Time Traveler's Wife" to be a masterpiece and waited patiently for a new book. What I found in the writing was almost the opposite of the first book. While the premise for the novel seemed intriguing (a woman with an estranged twin dies, but comes back to haunt the daughters in her London flat [don't want to give away the surprises]) and could have been a great read, the result was amusing at best.

Niffenegger chose to write from the omniscient point of view, probably her first mistake. She seems to have spread herself too thin by getting into the minds of every character, thereby letting us intimately know none of them. There is no depth of emotion. There are missed chances everywhere. For example, the romance between two of the lead characters is never described beyond a tepid kiss or so, yet we are supposed to believe that the extreme jealous reaction of the dead lover is warranted. With this and other relationships in the book, Niffenegger just skims the surface. The original falling out between the twin sisters is constantly hinted at, then when the reason is finally revealed, we are left to scratch our heads in confusion and disbelief.

While Niffenegger's writing is compelling enough for me to have continued Symmetry through to the end (which explains the two stars I give it), it completely lacked any of the gripping emotional quality of Time Traveler's Wife. That book was wrenching for me to read because I had fallen so in love with the characters as they fell in love with each other, and I felt the difficulty of their dilemma as if I was living through it with them. At the end, I cried so hard I actually sobbed. At the end of Symmetry, I simply shrugged and was glad to be done.

I have seen what Niffenegger can do. I hope she will try again. For now, just read (or re-read) "The Time Traveler's Wife" and skip "Her Fearful Symmetry".
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on October 14, 2009
The book is beautifully written but I became so exasperated with the silly turn the plot took that I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking "Oh for crying out loud!" Initially I loved the "ghost story" plot but it took such a ridiculous turn that the beauty of the writing was diminished by the irritation I felt at the author in letting it turn into such a silly Disney-like plot.
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VINE VOICEon September 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I can easily say that this is the best new book I've read this year. If you like deliciously strange ghost stories, this book will definitely satisfy your appetite. I had to make myself read it slowly so that I could savor every morsel of the spell it cast on me when I would read it.

At the center of this novel are twin sisters who inherit their aunt's flat near Highgate Cemetery in London. The twins (Julia and Valentina) are mysterious, delicate, murmuring creatures who are inseparable even at age 21. They're almost ghostlike in their exploration of London and the flat which turns out to be haunted by the real ghost of their aunt Elsbeth. The sisters drift and float into the lives of the other tenants of the building they live in in London. They wander into the lives of Elsbeth's sullen boyfriend and the Little Kitten of Death. The twins also wander into the life of a crossword puzzle maker that's so OCD that he can't leave his own flat (he accidentally washes a hole through the twins' ceiling). Just by existing, it seems that the twins can't help but involuntarily enter into the lives of those around them.

I enjoyed the ghost Niffenegger has created in this novel. Elsbeth (the ghost) can occupy the normal amount of space a regular person might occupy, but she can also squeeze into a locked drawer to sulk for days if she would like. She discovers that she can move dust enough to leave a message written on dust on the piano for the twins. But the best thing she does is decide she wants to touch David Tennant through the television during the Doctor Who episode "The Girl in the Fireplace". As a result, she ends up blowing the television completely. As Elsbeth discovers her ghostly powers, she drives the novel to its obvious but still-interesting conclusion. I just love that Niffenegger was willing to go to the extremes I was hoping she'd go with this novel. While Niffenegger seems to still be obsessed with relationships with large age differences (16 years in this case), she also delves into the topics of suicide, bodysnatching, and ghostly possession in interesting ways.

I found it interesting that the book is written in 3rd person, yet I felt like I was able to be inside the heads of so many strange, lonely people. It seemed that everyone needs something different from those around them. Maybe they want to be separated from those who are smothering them or to be reunited with those who have left them. But it seems that, in the end, only the ones acting the most unselfishly are able to find the happiness that they seek. Maybe we need people more than we think we do, but you can't need someone so much that you smother them.
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on October 18, 2009
When I first began reading this book, I thought to myself, "Oh my god, this is going to be one of my all-time favorites." I was so captivated by Ms. Niffenegger's portrayal of the characters and especially the raw emotion that Robert's grief over Elspeth's death evoked within me. I swear, I wept for the first hundred pages. The only reason I put the book down the first night was because I could no longer see that well from all my tears. But then, something happened, or rather nothing happened. It's like the characters fell flat. I couldn't connect with any of them in their relationships or even their personal feelings. The only one with whom I kind of understood was Martin and his OCD-ness. But the others? I cannot understand what happened with this so-promising book that it ended to be nothing but a plot with cardboard characters. I finished the book, but I'm still stymied by how the author (who writes beautifully) started off with such intensity and memorable characters to this .... this nothingness. I just don't understand that.
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VINE VOICEon October 22, 2009
Painfully immature and dysfunctionally co-dependent American twins are bequeathed a flat near London's Highgate Cemetery by their mother's twin sister. Since the will stipulates they will live in the flat for a year, they move in, only to find that their aunt never actually left.

I know many people are looking forward to this book, but I thought it was awful. The foreshadowng is horribly ham-handed - if you haven't sussed out the "big secret" in the first 15 pages you aren't reading very closely. Then nothing happens for 300 pages, and when something finally does it's 1) ridiculous and 2) the results are so obvious from the moment it's mentioned there's not much point in finishing the book. The upstairs neighbor, paralyzed by OCD, is by far the most interesting and sympathetic person in the novel. Scattered passages of pretty prose bump it to two stars, but don't make it worth the time and effort.
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