Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ by Audrey Niffenegger

What the blurb said:

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 cozy 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…

What I would say:

When I was paying for this one, the guy at the till was chatting away about how great he thought this was and how Niffenegger did so much research into Highgate Cemetry while writing it that she now acts as a tour guide there. I love books which include history of a location, culture or featured historical figure so this was a big selling point to me.

The first thing I noticed about this book was how heavily the story was invested in the characters. For the most part, the novel takes place in the house that contains the flat that was once (and in a way still is) inhabited by Elspeth Noblin and that is inherited by the Poole twins, the flat of Elspeth’s former lover Robert and the flat of utterly lovable OCD sufferer Martin and his wife Marijke.

So are the characters worth the time? At first, I wasn’t so sure. I loved Martin from the start and his vulnerability is very reminscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and really sympathised with his long suffering wife. Valentina and Julia were the weak links for me. Oddly for me, my first impressions changed with the characters and the characters that I disliked at first became my favourites. This leant the fantastical story an air of realism which I loved.

Obviously, the unique point of this story is that it is a “ghost story”. Most modern novels skirt around the issue of a ghost and hint at something supernatural (I’m thinking Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’). This book includes the Elspeth’s perspective as a ghost which is unique and fascinating, not least because of the effect this has on all of the other characters. Yes, at times it’s a teensy bit too much but overall I liked the effect.

The pace of the novel really picks up from about half way in and there are a good few twists to keep things rolling. When I say twist, they aren’t the kind of twists that jump out of nowhere and smack you round the face while you’re looking in the other direction – they’re hinted at so that just before they happened I found myself thinking “No way is…going to happen” – and it did! I like that as it feels more real and helps me think that I’ve really gotten to know the characters so this was a plus for me.

Overall: This wasn’t as memorable as ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ but it was an interesting atypical ghost story looking at lost love and how it can continue to affect all those involved after death – I’d recommend it to all readers looking for a wee bit of a tear-jerker…although it’s not all as gloomy as it sounds!

  • Great review! I enjoyed this…but not as much as The Time Traveller's Wife. Read it earlier this year but somehow I never got round to reviewing it on my blog

  • Red

    There's an award for you over at my blog!

  • I really loved this book. I agree it's not as good as The Time Traveler's Wife but it's still pretty good on it's own accord.

  • I didn't love this book as much as I wanted to, but then as everyone says it wasn't Time Traveler…

    I wonder how often authors' first books are their best? That's kind of sad but I think it may be true for a lot of writers. Like they have this one amazing story they have to write, but then they have to keep coming up with other ideas.

  • Booksploring: I think it would have been really tough to create another Time Traveller's Wife because it was so fantastic (at least, I thought so!) Thanks for reading my review and being kind about it 🙂

    Red: Awesome! Thanks ever so much 🙂

    Brenna: I think it's really interesting that you put "on it's own accord" (and this is kind of linked to my response to thebookstop) – I keep wondering what I would have thought of this if I'd read this one first. I agree completely though, it's definitely worth reading and I liked it so that's something!

    thebookstop: I totally agree – I always start authors' second novels with a bit of trepidation because I don't want to be disappointed. Time Traveler was so unique that I think Niffenegger was always going to have a tough time with her second. The other example I can think of is Mark Haddon – Curious Incident was so fantastic that when I read another of his books(A Spot of Bother) it was nowhere near the same..hmm…maybe that's a bit bleak!