Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
published September 2009 by Scribner
406 pages (hardcover), adult fiction
Julia and Valentina Poole are 20 year-old identical twins living in Lake Forest, IL when this novel begins, and their Aunt Elspeth, who has lived her whole life in London, has just died. She bequeathed the girls her flat in London with the specific instructions that they 1) live in it for a year before selling it and 2) not allow their parents to step foot inside of it. Elspeth and their mother Edie were also identical twins, with secrets they had kept hidden for decades, and naturally, Elspeth would have liked to keep it that way. Her request for the girls to live in her apartment, then, does seem a bit odd, but it is also the only way they will ever learn anything about their aunt. Robert, Elspeth's lover, lives in the same apartment building, which borders Highgate Cemetery, and is charged with getting the girls settled in and showing them around - which he avoids for nearly six weeks after their arrival. Martin is the last tenant in this building and a quirky one at that. A sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Martin is unable to leave his flat in order to chase after his wife who has recently left him - but not for lack of love on either part.
That's more than I care to write about this story and about what you would get if you were to read the inside flap. But I don't know how to adequately describe my love for this book. I've read mixed reviews - it seems to be a love it/hate it kind of book. And I do love it.
Niffenegger knows how to bring characters and their stories to life. I didn't particularly like or want to know any of the characters, but I wanted to know their stories. The twins' dependency on one another fascinated me and repelled me at the same time. I could understand the difficult choices that were made, especially considering the emotionally-charged circumstances. I don't think I spoil anything in saying that Elspeth may be dead in this story, but her spirit is very much alive and in contact with the girls. This is probably where some people shut down and cast this book aside. Yes, it's rather fantastical and at times ludicrous, but life is filled with impossible situations - I don't mind them finding their way into the books I read. What was most surprising to me was how comfortable I felt with the events that transpired after the twins realized they could communicate with their dead aunt. I didn't feel like I was reading a horror or ghost story at all.
I suppose what I really want to convey is the pleasure I had reading this novel. I read slowly and deliberately, putting it down after a couple chapters so that I wouldn't rush the story and lose anything I had just absorbed. The setting was delicately described, as delicate as London can be, and the chapter vignettes were carefully crafted to portray just enough of the story. At 400+ pages, I can hardly call the story sparse, but I feel like every word I read was necessary and meaningful.
I do caution the potential reader of this book to approach it with no expectations or preconceived notions. This I would caution of all books, but this book particularly because it is easy to love The Time Traveler's Wife and expect Her Fearful Symmetry to evoke the same reaction. It won't. But it is wonderful and beautifully complex in its own right.
Fyrefly's Book Blog - "[...] an addictingly good read, atmospheric and subtly creepy without being scary, intricately plotted and themed without being overbearingly Literary, and overall just a fascinating and very enjoyable read"
Presenting Lenore - "Niffenegger certainly knows how to hold a reader’s attention and I was never bored [...]"
Rhapsody in Books - "[...] in my opinion, the injection of supernatural elements into the plot militates against serious contemplation of these issues."
The Book Lady's Blog - "[...] if you’re willing to take some leaps of faith and suspend your rationality a bit, you’ll be greatly rewarded."
Tales of a Capricious Reader - "It’s a book to be relished."