Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Title: Her Fearful Symmetry
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Genre: Paranormal Fiction
First Published: September 2009
Publisher: Scribner
Source: Library
Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, A to Z Challenge, Support your Local Library Reading Challenge
406 pages




On the flap
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.


This is a very tricky book to review.

I thoroughly enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry. Having heard plenty of mixed reviews about this one, I wasn't sure how I would find it. On top of that, it was soon due back at the library, and I had 4 other library books calling my name desperately. I needn't have worried. This book definitely got me thinking and I like it when a book does that - when it stays in my mind for a long time after I actually finished reading it.


My opinion
Her Fearful Symmetry is definitely a challenging book. Challenging not because of writing style or incoherent ideas. Challenging because it questions a lot of accepted conventions that you might have. At least it did for me. I remember feeling the same after reading The Time Traveler's Wife.

This book got me thinking about a lot of things, but primarily about the relationship between twins. I have never known any twins, so I can't say how accurate Her Fearful Symmetry is on this subject. But I like to believe that the author took an extreme example to tell this story. The twins, first Elspeth and Edwina, and then Edwina's twin daughters, Julia and Valentina, are highly inseparable. After being together for years, cracks are bound to appear. What I found interesting, was how each set of twins responded to the troubles in the tightly-woven fabric that held them. When the reason for the estrangement of Elspeth and Edwina was revealed however, I was a bit disappointed, since that wasn't something I would expect to drive close sisters apart, not after being so close and sharing everything for almost 25 years. Maybe I am seeing it differently, but I expected something more severe. It just didn't seem a reasonable excuse to drive two twins apart, and worse, stay apart for years and not let any communications between the two parties. I almost got the sense the twist was included as an afterthought, like it didn't really fit in there. This was the only problem I had from this otherwise riveting read.

Another huge element of this book is the relationship between lovers. How far are you willing to go to keep your other half from finding some secret? Especially if that secret is built on a lie. Do you never wonder if your husband or boyfriend really loves you for who you are or for who he imagines you to be? I found this question come up many a time in the relationships of both sets of twins. It is tragic because it leads to a lot of doubts that could have been avoided. It is sad because no one knows what's true anymore, and something the twins' father, Jack, asked Robert towards the end, gives an idea of the enormity of this predicament.

This whole story is set around a graveyard, and as expected, we have ghosts too. Elspeth returns as a ghost and is stuck in her apartment. Valentina especially gets to know her better, and in the process the two make some very unpleasant discoveries. I wouldn't go into that since it's a spoiler, but it's definitely a very strong issue and I think, unethical (even in a haunted world). The particular incident literally left me shell-shocked and, to use the expression, gasping for air. It's been a long time since a book did that to me. I've never been able to forgive the character responsible for it, but then Audrey Niffenegger's books don't really go in the directions you want them to. They more likely leave you with questions, tears sometimes, but in a strange way, satisfaction too, since they get you thinking more, than if circumstances had taken a much "beaten" path.

There were some questions that I found unanswered as I read this book though, and one concerned why only Valentina could see Elspeth's ghost (eventually), or even sense it, while the rest could only feel the coldness of her touch. It felt like a tantalizing mystery whose answer I waited for.

I love Audrey Niffenegger's writing style. That's something I enjoyed in The Time Traveler's Wife, as well, and I just found myself turning page after page, no matter how slow the story might be going. Not that the story was slow, but there were a few chapters, that I didn't care much for when I was reading. Like, one chapter showing Robert's nightly habit of sitting by the cemetery for a long time. Another one, detailing Martin's disease and his severe OCD behavior. After finishing the book though, I did realize they were important chapters since those attributes of the characters had great bearing on the story to follow.


I also felt she gave a good amount of investment to each character. After reading for a while, I could easily sense the characters' responses and feelings. There's Martin, the neighbor who is obsessed with cleanliness and wouldn't come out of his house, and whose wife left him, developing a close companionship with Julia. There's Valentina, the submissive twin struggling for her space, enjoying her closeness with Robert. There's Elspeth, a very complicated character, who you would sometimes pity, and sometimes hate. I doubt Elspeth can be loved. There's Robert, Espeth's lover, who is struggling to accept Elspeth's death and growing increasingly fascinated with the twins. I felt the characters were very strong and even real, much that I had very clear visualizations of them as they went about their actions in the book.

As in The Time Traveler's Wife, the one thing I struggled with in this book was the ease with which the characters accepted something which is not normal. In the former, we didn't really have any one shriek with fright when a man came about saying he travels through time. I doubt I would sanely accept someone telling me that. In Her Fearful Symmetry, we have characters accepting that ghosts can exist. Sure, I know there are a lot of people who believe in ghosts. But wouldn't you still get that fierce creepy chill emanating from your back? Here I just sensed passive acceptance. Maybe it is just as well, since the characters stay near a graveyard or work in it. But I would have loved it if someone just screamed in fright and ran out of the house, once, just once.

Overall, I loved this book and have a new respect for Audrey Niffenegger for writing about very unconventional issues. I think you need a great deal of courage to write some of the things she wrote about, since they are issues you will either be yay or nay about, and we readers can't very easily accept everything we read about, just because it is written in print. This one is a very different type of book from The Time Traveler's Wife, but nevertheless, a good one in its own right.


Title Demystified
This is a very interesting title. It is not one that's easy to understand the relevance of, even in relation to the story. Apparently, the idea for this title came to Audrey Niffenegger from William Blake's poem, The Tyger. There are a few lines that go by

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

There is a lengthy analysis of this poem that can be found online, but in a nutshell, this is what I believe it says. (Feel free to correct me or call 'foul' :-) ) William Blake is asking who dares create something as ferocious as a tiger, wondering if man did it. The "fearful symmetry" is hinted at because a tiger has great symmetry in this structure, but also happens to be a fearsome creature. In essence, a paradox! On reading Her Fearful Symmetry, I can see how the poem applies here. But I wouldn't want to spoil it for you, if you haven't read it. :)

Also, in case you haven't noticed, "symmetry" and "cemetery" sound the same, if you use just the right accent!

Cover Art Demystified
The edition I picked from the library has branches laid out against a blue backdrop. The branches extend out to make the book title. I am taking it that this cover holds no particular significance than to show a hint of something not-normal, something haunted, like a cemetery.

What did you think?
Have you read this book? I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.

Did you like it or you didn't? If you didn't, at what point did the book turn you off.

13 comments:

bermudaonion said...

The reviews for this seem to be all over the place. I've decided I'm going to read The Time Traveler's Wife (which I have) first to see if I like Niffenegger's work before I get this one.

Diane said...

My rating was the same as yours. I like the book (especially Martin) but I had some problems with it as well. Great review; thanks

dolcebellezza said...

I bought this because I loved Time Traveler's Wife so much...I've heard a lot of mixed reviews about Symmetry, so I'm anxious to get to it. I'll come back to discuss it with you when I know what I'm talking about. ;)

Melissa said...

Great review...I loved The Time Traveler's Wife, but I feel a bit as if I'd be let down by this. Perhaps I'll try it later :)

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

Wow! What a magnificent review. I love it when bloggers describe the ways in which a book was thought provoking for them, as well as the things they loved about the book.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

I have not read this.
I disliked The Time Traveler's Wife so strongly that I am hesitant to try another book by her.
I did however enjoy reading your lovely thorough review and evaluation.
Bravo!
Happy Friday!

Aths said...

bermudaonion, I hope you will like both of them. Though I should warn you that both books are very different.

Diane, glad you liked it as well!

dolcebelleza, I'm waiting to hear how you like it!!

Melissa, sorry this one didn't work out for you. It is a hard book to love (and harder to review.. wink)

Stephanie, Thank you! :)

Juju, Thank you.. but I do hope you will read this one .. funny thing is I have heard that those who didn't like The Time Traveler's Wife liked Her Fearful Symmetry. ;-)

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Great review. I want to read this one.

Aths said...

Sheila, thanks! Hope you enjoy it too!

Lucia said...

Hi, I have read (and reviewed-http://missbrambles.blogspot.com/) this book, and found your comments very interesting. I very much agree with what you said about the acceptance of the unbelievable aspects of both Niffenegger's novels. It's great to see which were the key points for you. :)

Aths said...

Lucia, I just checked your review. So much of this book made me think, and I found that once I was able to accept the "unbelievables" in this book, I enjoyed it more.

Skygazer1220 said...

I regarded the cover art as a potential reference to James' story regarding his experience with the tree ghost of his childhood- just a thought. Thought provoking book and a great review too!

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks so much!!