Her Fearful Symmetry

I’m not much of a fan of horror or scary stories. That being said, I enjoy supernatural and paranormal stories, especially those with deep secrets and mystery. Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger fit the bill, even with a good ghost story thrown in.

Julia and Valentina are identical twins. Well, actually they are mirror twins. Even Valentina’s insides are mirror images, with her heart being on the right side of her body. This causes quite a few medical issues. The girls’ mother, Edie, is also an identical twin. The girls don’t remember ever meeting their Aunt Elspeth, who lives in far away London, and their mother never talks about her.

Elspeth dies of leukemia and leaves her entire estate to Julia and Valentina, with the stipulations that they must live in her flat, overlooking Highgate Cemetery, for at least a year before being allowed to sell it, and that their parents are never to enter the flat or their inheritance is void. Julia is terribly excited, but Valentina has misgivings, much playing the role of “Mouse,” which is Julia’s nickname for her. Based on Edie’s response to this news, as well as other lifelong clues, the girls know that there is some sort of secret and feel compelled to solve the mystery.

In London, they meet their neighbors. It takes a while, but Elspeth’s much younger lover, Robert, finally shows himself. He obviously prefers Valentina, who takes an instant liking to him, which develops into love. Julia befriends Martin, the brilliant and kind man upstairs afflicted with severe OCD. Try as they might, they cannot figure out Edie and Elspeth’s secret. At Elspeth’s request, Robert had removed all her diaries and private papers, but it takes a while to convince himself to read them.

Elspeth always wanted to know the twins, and now they are living in her flat. She is finally able to make her presence known, communicating by tracing letters in the dust that has settled on top of her piano. She is not an overly friendly ghost, nor is she malevolent. She is merely there, and willing to communicate with the twins, and with Robert. But, she is very tight lipped when it comes to the reason she and Edie stayed apart for the past few years of their lives. Although it seems that Elspeth has befriended them, Robert warns Valentina that Elspeth is clever, and not to be trusted.

Valentina desires individuality, a career, a life separate from that of Julia. However, her sister, who is the dominant twin, wants them to always remain together. Feeling trapped and even a bit crazed, Valentina begins to formulate a plan of escape that will end up involving, or affecting, everyone she loves.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It had just the right amount of haunting, sibling rivalry, angst, loyalty and love, mystery, and longing. The reader did have to suspend disbelief a bit, but the writing was so beautiful that was easy to do.

I loved how the title encompassed so many themes of the novel. Valentina was a mirror image, which caused health problems. Edie and Elspeth had a secret symmetry in their own lives. There was also a bit of symmetry in the relationships of some of the characters. And if one pronounces the title in a British accent, “symmetry” sounds much like “cemetery,” which was a central theme and location in the novel as well.

Very well done. I look forward to the author’s future works.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Lauren
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 12:45:05

    I liked this book as well, although I found it a bit confusing at times. It definitely created that creepy feeling of always being watched and not knowing what would happen next. I think the concept of symmetry is an interesting one and she does a great job of playing with it in different ways.

    I have to admit I didn’t like this one as much as her previous novel, ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ (which i HIGHLY recommend if you haven’t already read it btw), but I’m also interested to see what else she comes out with. Great review!


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