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.

The Séance

The Séance, by John Harwood, had been recommended to me a few months ago by a friend. I purchased the book, but just hadn’t gotten around to reading it. And as I mentioned in my last review, I’ve been traveling the past week, so after I finished a couple of books on the plane, I knew I would want something good to read on the return trip. Luckily, my friend also has a Nook and The Séance was available for lending! So, after he approved my request, I ended up reading in the evenings, and the book just didn’t last long enough for the return flight!

Set in England in the 1800s, this Victorian thriller had some great spooky elements, including a run-down mansion, an unexpected inheritance, thunder, lightening, and a questioned identity. The story is told through written “testaments” of several characters.

Constance Langton begins attending séances with the hope that maybe her depressed mother will be able to contact Constance’s sister, who died as a baby. However, her plan doesn’t quite work out the way she expects, and she finds herself without a father, (he had previously vacated their home), and without a mother. She goes to live with her mother’s brother, an uncle that she had never known existed.

Quite unexpectedly, Constance is informed that she has inherited Wraxford Hall, a derelict mansion with a sordid history, believed by many to be cursed. John Montague, the lawyer who delivers the news to Constance, advises her to sell the Hall, and “burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt,” and never to live there. Of course, this only makes Constance more curious, as does the packet of writings also delivered by Mr. Montague, which contains his own testament and that of an Eleanor Unwin.

Eleanor’s testament raises even more questions for Constance. It is not a happy tale. Estranged from her mother and sister, Eleanor finds a chance at happiness with an artist. Before they are to be married, he is studying Wraxford Hall as his next project when he is killed, presumably during the terrible thunder-storm. Dr. Magnus Wraxford tries to befriend Eleanor and proposes to her himself. Knowing he will never take the place of her first love, Eleanor agrees to marry him against her better judgement. After her marriage, she feels trapped for various reasons, and begins to see her husband for who he really is. At the end of reading Eleanor’s testament, Constance has much empathy for this woman and it becomes important to her to discover the truth of what actually happened at Wraxford Hall those many years ago.

So of course, Constance travels to the country, to visit her new estate along with a bunch of men from the Society for Psychical Research. She does manage, despite the best efforts of others, to come out of the visit alive, and with clues to solve the mysteries surrounding Wraxford Hall.

The true terror provided by this story was not necessarily in the events that occurred. Rather, it can be found in the Victorian society’s views of young women, especially those who feel trapped by no money and few prospects for their future. However, the two heroines of this story did survive, not unscathed, and were able to live without fear by the end of the story.

I enjoyed this book very much. It was full of twists and turns and the different view points kept the story interesting. The characters were developed well, as was the sinister Hall. I’m usually not much for ghost stories, but I loved the Victorian setting and the gothic and supernatural elements of the story. I’m definitely interested in reading more of this author’s work.