Anyone who’s read The Time Traveler’s Wife will probably agree that it’s a very unusual but wonderful book. I really liked it and at the same time felt unsettled by it. When I saw that Audrey Niffennegger had written a new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, I waffled about reading it. Would I like it? Would it leave me as unsettled as The Time Traveler’s Wife? Was I in the mood for that kind of experience again? After reading a synopsis in Publisher’s Weekly; however, I decided to give it a try and I’m really glad I did.
It’s not often that a story opens with a main character dying, especially one as likeable and lovely as Elspeth Noblin. Have I upset you by telling you that? People who know me know I’m not into giving up spoilers on books I review, so WTF? Elspeth is indeed one of the main characters. In fact, she pretty much orchestrates everything that happens in this book and she does die in the first paragraph — but she isn’t gone. Oh no – she’s very much part of the entire storyline.
Her Fearful Symmetry is the story of 2 sets of twins, and how their enmeshed twin-ness and their reactions to it affect them and the people in their lives for better or worse. It is every bit as unusual and intriguing as The Time Traveler’s Wife but for very different reasons.
The setting is the area next to Highgate Cemetery, in London, with all of the characters revolving around both the 2 sets of twins and the residents in the apartment (condo) house adjoining that cemetery. There’s Robert, who may never finish his thesis on the cemetery and is torn by his love for Elspeth. There’s Martin, an OCD crossword puzzle creator and his wife Marijke. And we must mention Elspeth’s twin Edie and her husband, Jack, who live in a Chicago suburb. And of course there are Edie’s mirror twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. Have I completely confused you yet? When Elspeth bequeaths her Highgate flat to her sister’s twins, with the caveat that Edie and her husband are not allowed to enter the flat, the plot thickens and things begin to get even more interesting.
I’ve always found the idea of identical twins fascinating and that’s one of the reasons I decided to give Her Fearful Symmetry a try. How do you handle having someone in your life who is your mirror image but isn’t you? How do you keep the special connection that all twins seem to have but find a way to differentiate yourself from that person so you can grow up and be your own unique person? Everyone has a tough enough time making the transition to expressing their uniqueness from other family members when they’re told growing up how much they’re like their aunt, their grandmother, their dad, their older sister or whomever. It’s almost like a rejection of that family member to make that transition but we all have to do it so we can be our unique selves. I can’t imagine how much more difficult that process must be for an identical or mirror twin.
In some ways, this is a ghost story. In other ways, it is a sibling relationship story. In many ways, it’s a love story. It’s definitely a very unique story. As soon as I suspected where it might be going, part of me wanted to quit reading; however, I had to see it through to the very end and I’m very glad I did.
Her Fearful Symmetry is aptly titled. It really is about Elspeth’s fearful symmetry in addition to the fearful symmetry of all the people involved.
Once I finished the story and stepped back from it, I was extremely impressed with Ms Niffennegger’s latest work. I think you’ll find it a very worthwhile read. Have fun!
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