Vulpes Libris

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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: a process of disengagement

Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers – normal, at least, for identical “mirror” twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cosy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin … but have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins’ mother – and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat …

This is a book of five fifths. Four of them are marvellous, but alas the final fifth rather falls apart, strangled by its own convoluted plotline. Naturally, Niffenegger writes with that same clarity, precision and gripping power that she used for her glorious first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was reviewed on Vulpes Libris here. I even don’t mind the occasional use of different character viewpoints within individual scenes – usually a publishing no-no, but Niffenegger does it with style. Her characters are also fascinating and portrayed with great vigour. I loved the ghostly Elspeth and the unravelling of her relationship (due to her death) with the grieving Robert. The scenes between them are devastatingly sharp and poignant, all the more so as Elspeth is at first unable to show Robert that she is still there, after death. The first line is so beautifully bleak that I was right there in the book’s world from the start:

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.

Even from that moment of death, the fates of Elspeth and Robert are inextricably bound up in each other:

Now he (Robert) was full of her smells, her voice, the hesitation on the telephone before she said his name, the way she moved when he made love to her, her delight in impossibly high-heeled shoes, her sensuous manner when handling old books and her lack of sentiment when she sold them.

Wonderful. That surely tells you everything you need to know about the relationship in one succinct paragraph. It’s interesting therefore that their couple dynamic rapidly loses momentum the moment Robert is able to communicate with his dead lover; the dynamic was in the lack of contact between them, not in its strangely fluid resolution.

I also think the OCD crossword compiler, Martin, is a magnificent character, even though he hardly leaves the flat at all. The descriptions of his compulsions and the things he has to do to survive his day are grippingly revealed, and I particularly liked the interactions with his absent wife, Marijke. The scene where Marijke has to find somewhere to put her goodbye note that won’t upset Martin’s OCD impulses is one of the best in the novel, as is her ingenious solution. Indeed, this novel is very much focused (a) on absent women and the effects they have on the people they leave behind, or should leave behind; and (b) on the men desperate at any cost to get their womenfolk back.

Which brings me in roundabout fashion to the twins, Julia and Valentina. It puzzled me as I began to read as to why the blurb should focus on them as the main characters, when the main characters are so obviously Elspeth, Robert and Martin, all of whom have very strong and individual voices within the text. That’s not to say Julia and Valentina aren’t strong, as they are. Very much so. But, for me, they were secondary characters who weren’t in the end as interesting as the adults in the books. Still, blurb writers follow their own strange laws, and there’s neither rhyme nor reason to them. I also admit that – entirely due to the really nasty portrayal of the twins on the cover, where they look shallow, mean and cruel in the extreme – I was dreading having to read about them. Which does prove that covers have a huge influence on how one begins a book, I think, but that’s perhaps a posting for another time. On the cover, they are the sort of young hard-faced gals I would run screaming from if I saw them in the street. In the text they’re actually rather sweet and charmingly unconfident (Valentina) or charmingly direct (Julia). They might even offer me a cup of tea, which always goes down well.

In some senses, the twins are there to throw light on the other characters; in particular, Julia’s growing friendship with Martin is fascinating and very sparky, whilst Valentina falls in love with Robert:

Because Valentina was shy herself – because she had spent her life with an extrovert who never tired of mocking her timidity – since she had never met a person who seemed normal and was abruptly revealed to be acutely inhibited; because there was a profound intimacy in observing Robert’s fear; because she was emboldened by Julia’s presence: Valentina stepped closer to Robert and put her hand on his arm. Robert looked at her over the rims of his glasses.
‘It’s okay,’ she said. He felt, without being able to express it to himself, that something lost had been restored to him.

It’s also strangely heartening to have a character – Elspeth – who stays with us throughout the whole book but who’s actually a ghost. I did enjoy that, and I think on the whole Niffenegger deals with it very well. I found much pleasure in reading about how the ghost world works and how strange and difficult Elspeth finds it, and how much she has to practise in order to perfect her ghostly skills. It was a very different take on the concept of the afterlife and I appreciated that.

Much, I believe, has been said already by many other people about the role of Highgate Cemetery in this book, and the amount of practical research the author carried out in order to realise the setting. Most of the time, it works, but I have to admit there is one scene where Robert takes a tour around the Cemetery that screamed out: the author has done the research and will make you read it whether or not it’s interesting. Which surprised me from a writer this accomplished. I didn’t need to read every detail about every grave, and I found myself skipping this section and sighing. Less is, really, more.

Turning to the issue of the plot however, the novel is ultimately very confusing and a lot of jarring things happen in the latter sections that didn’t work at all. It drifted somewhere between a Shakespearian take-off (arrghh, those wretched twins – it leads nowhere!) and a B-list horror film, and wasn’t really sure which camp it belonged to. I would say more but I’ll be in danger of giving away too much, and I don’t want to do that.

So this is a book that includes a wealth of rich and fascinating characters who interact with each other in realistic and moving ways. It’s a shame about the final thinness of the plot then; the interactions are nicely built up throughout four-fifths of this novel, but the storyline rather lags behind and isn’t a suitable vehicle for the people written about. It felt very much like watching a film with Class A actors in a Class C plot – a wasted opportunity really. Indeed, during the last fifth of the novel, so much that is ridiculous happens that more than once I ended up laughing with despair. I also found myself becoming slowly disengaged with the novel as a result, which is a shame as the writing and the characters are just so good.

That said, the last few pages are, thankfully, quite magnificent and we’re left in exactly the right scenario which leaves us with the terrible realisation that the worst thing, as Oscar Wilde probably once said, is to get what you wish for. A lesson for us all indeed.

Her Fearful Symmetry, Jonathan Cape 2009, ISBN: 978 0 224 08561 8

[Anne is always rather partial to a little spookiness in books. To discover her other sinister secrets, please click here.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at:,, and (for fantasy fiction).

22 comments on “Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: a process of disengagement

  1. Lib
    April 26, 2010

    I like your review, Anne, quite balance and really honest about what you felt reading the book.

    I was in Waterstone’s the other day trying to choose 3 books for the 3 for 2 deals (I’m not in the UK very often, so I always buy 3 books when I’m there!), and Audrey Niffeneger’s books (The Time Traveller’s Wife and this one) were on the tables as part of the offer… I didn’t buy them eventually, but I considered doing so for quite a while… Don’t really why, i wasn’t really attracted to the pitch on the cover. Maybe because spooky, supernatural stories are not really my thing 😉

    Anyway, nice review, although I’m not it’ll make me want to read the book after all!


  2. Anne Brooke
    April 26, 2010

    Thanks, Lib! Yes, they are very different, though I do admire her writing very much. I’ll be interested to see what she writes next.

    Hope you had a good time in the UK!


    Anne B

  3. Lib
    April 26, 2010

    Forgot to mention, I love the Blake reference in her title 😉

  4. Valerie Morton
    April 26, 2010

    Hi Anne,

    I really enjoyed reading your review and it followed the lines of my impressions after reading this – I was one person who enjoyed it as much as TTTW.

    I do agree with you about how the plot got so convoluted it kind of lost itself in the last quarter, except for one of my favourite parts which is where Martin eventually gets the courage to leave the flat and go and find Marijke in Amsterdam. I found that one of the more hopeful and strangely moving parts of the book and eventually provided me with a character I could actually consistently like.

    She builds her characters brilliantly, doesn’t she but I did end up getting progressively irritated by them, especially Robert 🙂

    But it was a great read – I like spooky of this kind very much. It did keep you wondering where it was going.

    Thanks for this – I’m sure it will inspire more people to try the book.

    Hope all good with you – you seem very busy. I find it hard to keep up with you :))


  5. Anne Brooke
    April 26, 2010

    Gosh, I didn’t pick up on that – shame on me, Lib!!! Yes, it is lovely. 🙂

    Thanks, Valerie – she is a great writer indeed! I see what you mean about Robert though. And I keep breathing. Hope you’re well too …



  6. Jackie
    April 26, 2010

    I liked TTW, so was looking forward to this review. But i did have a similar response to seeing the girls on the cover, being disappointed & saying to myself “Oh no, I couldn’t handle an entire book about those two.” Glad that the actual characters don’t match the cover image.
    Niffenegger makes a specialty of couples who aren’t whole or in a conventional way, which is intriguing. The characters in this one sound very engaging, but that spooky ending has me nervous.

  7. annebrooke
    April 26, 2010

    So glad to see it wasn’t just me that’s being put off by that cover, Jackie! I know what you mean about the unconventional characters too – AN is really really good with those.



  8. Nikki
    April 26, 2010

    Even your negative point has me wanting to read the book. I want to know what it was that you couldn’t say more about! I LOVE the sound of Martin, Elspeth and Robert, although not so intrigued by the twins. Can’t wait to read it now. Although, I remember thinking the twins on the cover looked very cardboard.

  9. annebrooke
    April 26, 2010

    Do read it, Nikki – and let me know what you think about the end sections – I’d love to know!!


  10. The Literary Omnivore
    April 27, 2010

    What a foul cover! There’s a much lovelier one floating around somewhere, but that one is horrid. The good parts sound lovely, but I would be so wounded once something so good started going downhill that I wouldn’t be able to take it. I’m glad you enjoyed it, though!

  11. annebrooke
    April 27, 2010

    Yes indeed, TLO! A better cover would certainly have helped me through the last sections! 🙂 Axxx

  12. Nikki
    April 28, 2010

    I’ll definitely let you know what I think, Anne. It all comes down to whether it’s in the library (doubtful, can’t understand why it’s reopened with about a zillion less books) or when I can afford it. Library Saturday methinks!

  13. SamRuddock
    April 30, 2010

    Great review, Anne. I’m definitely going to have to read this one soon. Without having read the book though, I wonder whether the problem is with the title rather than the blurb or cover. Beautiful title, but it clearly points to the novel being about the twins (and this is reflected in the jacket too) so it would have been slightly strange had the blurb talked about these other characters and might actually have put me off.

    And I actually like the jacket. It conveys the title well. There’s the symmetry, of course, but there is also the fearful aspect. The absolute whiteness of their clothes is slightly creepy, particularly when set against a backdrop in which they are heading into an unknown underground passage from a wooded area above. It sounds like it’s not a particularly representative jacket, but it’s one that catches my immagination immediately.

  14. annebrooke
    April 30, 2010

    Interesting thoughts, Sam – and you may well be right! I wonder if our different reactions to those twins picture is a (dare I say it!) gender divide? I am already pondering what another title could be …



  15. SamRuddock
    April 30, 2010

    Yes, I was trying not to mention the gender divide and I think you might be right. It seems that a lot of readers are seeing the two girls/women on the front cover and seeing them as representative of something rather than being characters to develop an affinity with. And I can see that as they do look rather bland and the white of their clothes has so many connotations that it carries.

    I think I’m not worried about that as I’m not very good at seeing character or personality in images of people and tend to see all pictures/photos as representative of an atmosphere rather than a person. Don’t know whether that is the gender divide, or just something I do. Interesting to think about, though, as I’d never really thought about this before.

  16. annebrooke
    April 30, 2010

    Covers are fascinating – and perhaps it also depends on what sort of genre you prefer reading? I’m not sure – just thinking that one through. I’d love to read some sort of study on the psychology of book covers but maybe it’s already been done? VL readers will have to enlighten me!


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  18. Nikki
    November 2, 2010

    I finished this book today and enjoyed most of it, but I would agree that the ending unravelled somewhat. I would have preferred the focus to remain on the relationships that the twins make with Martin and Robert, while Elspeth watches Robert grow away from her. The revelation and what happens at the end… Confusing and convoluted. I think the only conclusion I was really happy with was Martin’s. That was perfect, as far as I was concerned.

  19. annebrooke
    November 2, 2010

    My thoughts exactly, Nikki! That ending simply didn’t work on the whole though I do so agree about Martin 🙂

  20. Nish
    January 18, 2011

    Love the last line of your review. So true! I just finished reading the book, and I have similar thoughts.

    If you are interested, you can see my blog post here:

  21. Anne Brooke
    January 18, 2011

    Thanks, Nish – fascinating to see your comments on your post also! I do agree with you 🙂

  22. Pingback: Twins & Ghosts – a complex combination - Annabookbel

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This entry was posted on April 26, 2010 by in Entries by Anne, Fiction: 21st Century, Fiction: literary, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .



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