Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Photo taken from Goodreads

 Book Info

Title:  Her Fearful Symmetry 

Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
Publisher:  Scribner
Language: English
Format:  Hardcover 
Pages:  416 pages
ISBN-10:  1439165394
ISBN-13:  978-1439165393
Source:  Purchased, Booksale


From Goodreads:

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 have been putting off finally reading this book for the longest time.  I was very intrigued by the synopsis of this book when I picked it up in the bookstore one day.  But because I already had a lot of books to buy that day, I decided to pass on it for the time being.  When I got home, I looked it up on the internet and found predominantly negative reviews for this second book by Audrey Niffenegger.  Disappointed, I thought it best to just forget about it.  Then a month or so after, I found a hardcover copy in my favorite secondhand bookstore and without thinking, took it to the cash register and purchased it.  Later, while thinking about the wisdom of my actions, I thought, What the heck, if I didn't like it, at least I did not pay that much for it.

And now, I can say, finding a copy of Her Fearful Symmetry in that secondhand bookstore was destiny.  In my opinion, this is one of the best books I have read so far.  

At its heart, this book is not just a simple ghost story, it is a story of human follies - wanting one thing but ending up with something else; wanting what you can never have; playing a joke on others but it turns out the joke is on you.  The ghost story in itself is an amazing sketch of the hilarity of the unachievable - you lay in wait for death, but as soon as it comes it eludes you again and you find that you're stuck, with nowhere to go.

Reading through the whole story, I think I could guess at what most people found disappointing:  It is that the book have failed - not their expectations - but their predicted outcome.  At the risk of giving a spoiler, I would say that the ending is not quite what I expected either, but definitely something I could justify and actually preferred.  When reading a book, most of us begin forming the story's outcome in our minds, writing our own twists and turns and usually, a good book would fill that expectation and more.  This book, on the other hand, refused to give the reader the satisfaction of being able to map out its story in advance.  You read through the chapters and just as you were beginning to form certain ideas about where the tale is going to lead, it suddenly takes you on a different route.  Chapter after chapter of unpredictable and sometimes disconcerting twists have finally lead me to realize that Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is not just a mere book - it has a life of its own, and it will not bend to whatever reader's imagination, the reader would have to bend to this book's contents instead. 

And because this book is alive, the writing, the characters, the scenes seemed very alive and real.  It is not difficult to pretend that what you are reading is real if it is actually based on reality, but with the ghost story inserted within its pages, this book manages to suspend disbelief and yet thrive on it, as if everything that is happening is actually true, or could be true.

This book is definitely a good read if you are willing to keep an open mind and willing to let go and just let this book run your senses - let the book control you, and you will understand what exactly made this book by Niffenegger such a magical reading experience.


If you have any questions on this particular rating, please refer to my ratings system here.


All opinions expressed in this book review are my own and not influenced by any party in any way. 
Please contact me for questions, comments, and suggestions.  


  1. I really appreciate this review. I, too, have read a lot of negatives about this book. The positive reviews I have read, say that people don't like this because it's nothing like Time Traveler's Wife. I'm going to give this one a try. Thanks!

  2. Excellent review Nina, as always. :)

    I like how you described this book having a "life of it's own." It sounds like a welcomed breath of fresh air compared to some other stories. I've never heard of this one, but If I come across it on the shelves at my local store, I'll be sure to pick myself up a copy. :)



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