book review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I am perhaps one of the last readers who has never read The Time Travelers Wife. I keep meaning to, but it never finds its way to the top of my pile. Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed both of Audrey Niffenegger's illustrated novels: The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress. Still, going into Her Fearful Symmetry, I'd read several rave reviews and a few mixed reviews. I didn't know what to expect, and although I had high hopes, I kept my expectations a little lower.

Her Fearful Symmetry is essentially the story of two sets of twins: Elspeth and Edie; and Edie's daughters Julie and Valentina. The story begins with Elspeth's death in London. The details are vague, both for the characters and the reader, as to what exactly happened to these sisters that they don't speak. Elspeth leaves her London flat, which overlooks Highland Cemetary, to Julie and Valentina on three conditions. First, the girls must live there for one year before they sell it. Second, their parents may never enter it. Third, the girls must wait until they turn twenty-one to move in. The apartment has a motley crew of characters: Robert, who was Elspeth's long-time lover and companion, but they always kept separate apartments; and Martin, an OCD crossword writer whose wife, Marijke, has just left him and moved to Amsterdam.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book. The story was set up well, and I was eager to see where it went. (Side note: the library had a horror genre sticker on the book, which I think I added to my expectation of creepiness. The creepiness never fully materialized for me despite the presence of ghosts.) Niffenegger's writing is lovely and beautiful. This novel is incredibly well written, but unfortunately, it isn't really that good. There were some wonderful scenes and moments. My jaw dropped to the floor once, but my eyes also rolled a few times. As a reader, I was far more interested in the stories behind the scenes: Edie and Elspeth's, Edie and her husband, Elspeth and Robert, and Martin and Marijke. I found the younger twins rather annoying at times. The annoyance is perhaps a reflection on their age, but I wanted to shake some sense into them more than once. Their foolishness was dull rather than understandable. There wasn't enough of the story apart from the twins. The other characters in the building soon were too wrapped up in the twins' world for my taste.

There's a lot of good in Her Fearful Symmetry, both thematically and with Niffenegger's graceful prose, but at the end of the book, I simply didn't like it very much. I'm certainly glad I read it, but the promise of the book's first half was not only unfulfilled, it was in contrast to the second half. The book went from thoughtful and subtly creepy to unnecessary far too quickly. In the end, it's a beautifully written tale, and I will eagerly await Audrey Niffenegger's next novel. In the meantime, I still have The Time Traveler's Wife to read.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 416
Publication: September 29, 2009
Source: my local public library


  1. I loved reading your review, and was sorry this book wasn't a total winner for you. I still plan to read it this month. Thanks for the honest review.

  2. Good review. Interestingly, that was how I felt about the Time Traveller's Wife - only so so. I still want to read this one just because I know everyone will be talking about it but maybe she's just one of those writer's that isn't really for me.


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