Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger [Review]

Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers – normal, at least, for identical ‘mirror’ twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cozy suburban home.

But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London.

They feel that at last their own lives can begin …but have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins’ mother – and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat…

With Highgate Cemetery itself a character and echoes of Henry James and Charles Dickens, “Her Fearful Symmetry” is a delicious and deadly twenty-first-century ghost story about Niffenegger’s familiar themes of love, loss and identity. It is certain to cement her standing as one of the most singular and remarkable novelists of our time.

— Publishers Synopsis

I had great plans.

This one was due in time for last years R.I.P challenge and went out and bought it on release day. And it then sat on my shelves for twelve months unread…

Not really sure why, but every time I ran my fingers along the books to pull one off the shelf, it was never this one. Then this years R.I.P came around and me and Kelly were hoping to do a buddy review of it, but unfortunately that wasn’t to happen, as Kelly couldn’t find a copy in time. 🙁

Undeterred, and as I’d already started it, I was already enthralled by this wonderful Gothic-y ghost story.

I’m really glad I left it those twelve months, as doing so allowed me to assimilate everyone else’s comments on it, and not compare it to The Time Traveller’s Wife, whilst I was reading it.

It’s not a book without faults though, most of the characters, whist not hate figures aren’t particularly likeable, making caring for them, somewhat hard work. There are some likable people in there, though but we’ll get to them later. 😉

I also saw where things were going from the point the kitten died for the first time, so that plot strand held few surprises for me, even though I did second-guess myself all the way through about whether I was right or not…

As I said, few of the characters are properly likable, they tend to be very self-centered and in the case of the twins spoiled. There were some really great characters though, Marijke and Martin were fantastic, and watching Martin battle his OCD so he could be reunited with his wife, was easily one of the best bits of the book.

And, Robert’s ‘boss’ at the Friends of Highfield Cemetery, Jessica, goes straight in to my top ten of literary octogenarians! Intelligent, feisty and in better control of her faculties, than most people half-her-age. Nothing gets past her!  😉

During writing the above two paragraphs, I’ve realised something, and I know it calls into question my self-centered comment 😉 but there’s a genuine feeling that they all like and care for each other, and it’s these interactions that are the redeeming feature of many of them, and something Niffenegger gets just right.

I am very much a character based reader, and particularly enjoy it when an author nails this element of a group of characters, shows that they have a history, life and friendship outside of the plot. People that have known each other for years  should feel that they have known each other for years.

Especially, Julia, the bossy more controlling of the twins, who befriends Martin, ultimately allowing him take his medicine and overcome his demons, I was most surprised, to end up caring for her, and pleased that there was the possibility of a happier future.

But the real highlight of the book, is both the house and Highfield Cemetery. Apart from the ghost 😉 The house they all live in is described in such away that you’d love to live there yourself, mind you I like old houses anyway. But it does sound a great place to live.

Highgate Cemetery though… How perfectly is that depicted? As the blurb says almost a character itself, every time Robert or Valentina step into it, you’re right there with them, wandering the paths seeing the graves, mausoleums and the overgrown nature that now weaves itself everywhere around the place.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I live near (and went to school next to) a big old Victorian Cemetery, and it was a great place to escape to on a lunchtime, when the hustle, bustle and stresses of school got too much (teenage years were such a perfect time ;)), it’s easy to see why Robert feels at peace at Highgate.

All in all, a flawed but ultimately enjoyable read.

Buy: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger from The Book Depository

18 thoughts on “Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger [Review]

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  • November 27 at 5:13 pm

    I loved the cemetery. I was thrilled Niffenegger managed to include so many stories and scenes in the cemetery. And I really loved the way that the kitten’s death was handled, the first time and thereafter — it was such a weird little matter-of-fact way of handling it.
    Jenny recently posted…Review- The Hand that First Held Mine- Maggie O’FarrellMy Profile

  • November 26 at 3:25 pm

    I agree with your comments here. Ultimately this one was both hit and a miss for me, and even months after reading it, I can’t firmly decide whether or not I would recommend it.
    Trisha recently posted…Graphic MythsMy Profile

    • November 26 at 5:07 pm

      I think I’d recommend it. If only for fact, people have to think about whether they like it or not! 😉

  • November 24 at 4:36 pm

    Glasgow’s old cemetery was my favorite spot of the city when I was studying there.
    I was considering getting this one for this year’s RIP, but somehow it never came about. So I might wait to get it until next year’s.

    Did you enjoy The Time Traveler’s Wife in the end?
    Alex recently posted…Garden Spells by Sarah Addison AllenMy Profile

    • November 24 at 8:47 pm

      There’s something about old cemeteries that are surprisingly comfortable and relaxing places to spend an hour or two.

      I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife!

  • November 24 at 4:39 am

    Although I rated this book really highly when I read it, I’ve found that it hasn’t stuck in my head *nearly* as well as TTTW, even though I read this only a year ago and I read TTTW more than four years ago. I do remember that Martin was far and away my favorite character, though.
    Fyrefly recently posted…Jane Yolen – The Devil’s ArithmeticMy Profile

    • November 24 at 8:49 pm

      I think Martin was most peoples favourite person! As I say it wasn’t until I wrote the review that I realised I enjoyed their interactions far more than the characters themselves. Martin excepted of course! 😉

  • November 24 at 4:15 am

    Great review! I went into this one with really low expectations because I didn’t like her first book which everyone loved and was surprised with how much I liked it. I really enjoyed the Highgate Cemetery bits too!
    Amused recently posted…Mailbox Monday- November 15th – 20th- 2010My Profile

    • November 24 at 8:52 pm

      I really liked TTW so having that extra year allowed me to temper my expectations somewhat, so I was far less disappointed with this one than I know some have been. I think those that were able to do similar tend to be the ones that liked the book the most.

  • November 24 at 2:50 am

    The Marijke and Martin storyline was definitely my favorite of this book. I was surprised at how sweet their love story was, and it was a welcome break from the considerably less likeable characters.
    Megan recently posted…Sunday UnSalon- Bloggy McSlackerMy Profile

    • November 24 at 8:54 pm

      Yes, definitely. While the others weren’t totally horrible, you had to look to find something to like.

  • November 24 at 2:48 am

    Glad to hear you liked it. It sounds like taking a year to set it apart might have been a good plan.

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