BOOK REVIEW: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

RELEASE DATE: September 29, 2009
PUBLISHER: Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
FORMAT: Hardcover
SOURCE: Purchased

Audrey Niffenegger’s spectacularly compelling second novel opens with a letter that alters the fate of every character. Julia and Valentina Poole are semi-normal American twenty-year-olds with seemingly little interest in college or finding jobs. Their attachment to one another is intense. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. From a London solicitor, the enclosed letter informs Valentina and Julia that their English aunt Elspeth Noblin, whom they never knew, has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions to this inheritance: that they live in it for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the estranged Elspeth and Edie, their mother. 

The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders the vast and ornate Highgate Cemetery, where Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, Stella Gibbons and Karl Marx are buried. Julia and Valentina come to know the living residents of their building. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword-puzzle setter suffering from crippling obsessive compulsive disorder; Marijke, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including – perhaps – their aunt.


I loved this book. Of course, I feel biased because when The Time Traveler’s Wife came out, I loved that as well. And the movie. What can I say? Audrey Niffenegger can write a good story!

I didn’t know what to expect when I started to read Her Fearful Symmetry. I bought the book strictly because of who wrote it and only knew it was about twin daughters and a flat their aunt had left them.

I did NOT expect to be completely taken over by this book.

The only twins I ever really remember reading about are Jessica and Elizabeth from Sweet Valley High. I still have one book from when I was addicted to the series when I was younger (and I intend on reading it again soon!) and remember thinking how neat it would be to have a twin.

When I started reading Her Fearful Symmetry, I was immediately entranced. The first twins, Edie and Elspeth live an ocean apart from each other. Something had happened in their past that made them never keep in touch with each other. Now Elspeth, who lived in London, has died and left all of her belongings to Edie’s twin girls, Julia and Valentina. When they turn 20, they can move into Elspeth’s flat and cannot sell it for at least a year.

I was expecting a journey into the deep dark secrets of the first set of twins and I got that, along with a very gothic tale. It wasn’t too creepy – just enough to give you goosebumps. I wasn’t expecting a ghost story, but it wasn’t so scary that I found myself afraid to read in the dark, but it was enough to add an air of mystery to the novel – and some very unexpected twists (one of which I was deeply disappointed with – but it does work.)!

The characters were very well developed and I found myself falling in love with the twins, with Robert, and even with the slightly-off-kilter Martin. Relationships are developed, adding both humour and intimacy to the novel. I love how the twins had so much fun when they first moved to London – wrapping themselves up in the city and the dialect.

I’ve never been around sets of twins before, but it was a fascinating thing to read about – especially when the girls were described as being “Mirror Twins,” which means that their internal structure is opposite of each others (e.g. Valentina’s heart is on the opposite side from where Julia’s is). This idea helped explain a lot of the differences between the two girls.

Niffenegger is a great writer – she doesn’t drone on with useless details, but every word is necessary, and every situation in the book is crucial to the storyline. I could really read this book again!

Definitely recommended if you are a fan of Audrey Niffenegger’s work, or if you like modern gothic tales and ghost stories. However, if you’re looking for a book like The Time Traveler’s Wife, this might not be for you – there’s similar magic, but it does cross over to the dark side.


One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

  1. Fantastic review! I’ve seen this book all over, but never really had any idea what it was about. It sounds really interesting and I’m now adding it to my wishlist.

My home is where my books are. - Ellen Thompson

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