BOOK: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (2009)

I read Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, years ago and couldn’t get into it.  Wasn’t gripped by the story, wasn’t really enjoying the writing, etc.  But when I read a description of this novel — a ghost story! — I decided to give her a second try.  (I’m kind of a sucker for ghost stories, and good ones are a rare and wonderful thing.)

The plot is about a middle-aged woman, Elspeth, living in England and estranged for decades from her twin sister after a fight nobody in the family seems to know much about.  When Elspeth dies from cancer at age 44, she leaves her London flat to her American twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, under the stipulation they live in the flat for a year before selling it, and never allow their mother, Elspeth’s twin, to come inside.

Julie and Valentina are twenty and bored, looking for an adventure before starting college, so they jump at the opportunity to go live on their own in another country for a while.  But they have personal problems that are exacerbated by their new independence — and their growing codependence.  Valentina desperately wants to strike out on her own, but Julia is very controlling and fights hard to keep Valentina perpetually at her side.  At the same time, Valentina is meek, fearful, and relies too much on her sister’s strength to get through challenging times.  The twins feed off each other, and not in a mutually supportive way.  After years of being glued to the hip — they even sleep together every night — the chance to become individuals at last is both enticing and terrifying.

As they settle into their new life in Elspeth’s flat, they begin to befriend the neighbors — Martin, a man with severe and unhealthy obsessions about germs and disease, and Robert, Elspeth’s long-time lover, who is obsessed in an almost equally unhealthy way with a book he’s writing about nearby Highgate Cemetary (resting place of Karl Marx, Michael Faraday, and a host of other impressive and creative Brits).  But weird things are happening, and the girls soon begin to suspect there’s another force at play in the apartment: Elspeth.  DEAD Elspeth.  And when the girls find Elspeth’s diaries, a lot of questions are finally answered, including the dramatic (and somewhat silly) details of the battle that drove their mother and aunt apart all those many years ago.

Though I found the end of this novel a little unsatisfying (not to mention a bit on the ridiculous side), I did enjoy the book as a whole.  It explores well the themes of obsession, love, family, and the gradual “erasure” that comes through death, and does it with a bit of grace now and again to boot.  Niffenegger isn’t a brilliant wordsmith — her writing is fairly pedestrian, really — but the characters were intriguing and the story was meaty enough to keep me turning the pages.  Was I impressed enough to seek out more of her work?  Eh, not really.  But we’ll see what her next one is about, and if it sounds interesting, I’ll probably pick it up at some point.

Not bad.


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2 Responses to “BOOK: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (2009)”

  1. Liz Says:

    Was her book, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” the one they made the movie out of? I was determined I wasn’t going to see it, because I thought it sounded stupid. Then I got pulled into it when it was on HBO … and I wept by the end of it! What a cream puff I can sometimes be! I wonder if they’ll make a movie of this book. Sounds like it might be a better one!

  2. megwood Says:

    Yep, that’s the book. I’ll have to try the movie some time!

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