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HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

SymmetryI finally got around to reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. It came out in 2010 and was very hot on the book blogger circuit. I actually got a review copy of it at the time, but decided that it wasn’t my kind of book (despite really enjoying The Time Traveler’s Wifereviewed here) and eventually gave it away. Then I saw Her Fearful Symmetry on audio a few weeks ago at the library and decided to take it out. I also downloaded on my Kindle – the first book I have read on the device.

What a strange book. Her Fearful Symmetry is basically a ghost story, a gothic tale about identity and secrets and families. It centers around two sets of idential twins: Edie and Elspeth, who are estranged and in their 40s, and Julia and Valentina, who are Edie’s daughters. Elspeth dies of leukemia and leaves her entire estate, including her apartment in London, to her nieces, who live in Chicago and have never met her. The one stipulation is that Julia and Valentina must live in Elspeth’s apartment for a year, without their parents.

The theme that came up over and over for me was claustrophobia. Julia and Valentina are close to the point of having no life outside of each other. Valentina longs for independence from her bossy sister, while Julia relishes the role of caregiver and refuses to give her sister the space she craves.

There are veyr few other characters in the book. One is Robert, Elspeth’s boyfriend, who lives in the flat the girls’ apartment. Robert, who is writing a dissertation about the neighboring Highgate Cemetery, is grieving the loss of his girlfriend and starts to transfer his affections to her niece, Valentina. The other main character is Martin, their upstairs neighbor who suffers from OCD and cannot leave his flat. Martin’s wife has left him, and Martin has sunk further and further into isolation and his own obsessions.

Things get supernatural when Elspeth’s ghost returns to the flat and starts interacting with her nieces and Robert. She cannot leave the flat; she is ever-present. Valentina, who is intimidated by London, stays home more and more so that she can transcribe missives from Elspeth. Julia, meanwhile, becomes interested in Martin and tries to help him overcome his disease.

The characters are all trapped – in the past, in unhealthy relationships, by long-seated secrets that cannot be revealed. I found myself literally searching for air as I read it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s a sign of Niffeneffer’s skill as a storyteller. I wasn’t even bothered that much by the ghostly elements of the book, which would usually be something I would avoid. None of these characters is particularly likable (other than Martin), but they were certainly interesting.

Some plot twists toward the end (one foreseeable, one not) also heightened my interest in the book.

So here’s my advice – if you liked The Time Traveler’s Wife but think that Her Fearful Symmetry isn’t for you, as I did, give it a try. Even if you haven’t read Niffenegger before, keep an open mind about this one. I am not big gothic/supernatural reader at all, but I still enjoyed it. She’s a very talented writer and her books are original and incredibly memorable.

A word on the audio: The narrator is very British, perfect for the material. I hated her depiction of Julia and Valentina – not sure if it was her poor American accent or her attempts to make them seem listless and young, but they came across as even more juvenile and whiny than I think Niffenegger intended. Otherwise, her diction and delivery were perfect.