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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry Book Review

Her Fearful Symmetry is a gothic novel by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife. I found the idea and the setting of the novel quite interesting, and enjoyed the beginning of the novel more than the end. 

The title, "Her Fearful Symmetry" is from William Blake's poem, "The Tyger", which deals with the awe that such paradoxes in the world could come from just one Creator. 

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

(as an aside, this poem reminds me of the novel The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, in which one of it's characters, a Jekyll and Hyde type, who is the mentor and father-figure of the main character, has this quote tattooed on the bottom of his foot.)

This title is fitting for the novel, in that the main characters are two sets of twins, although they look remarkably alike, their personalities are very different and the cause of much turmoil throughout their lives. 
The setting is the real-life Highgate Cemetery in London, which is appropriate for such a ghost story as this.

I won't give away any spoilers, but Elspeth, of the first generation of twins, dies in the first few pages of the book. She leaves her London flat to her twin nieces, with the condition that their mother (her twin) cannot set foot in the flat. The flat overlooks Highgate Cemetery, where they have a family mausoleum, and where Elspeth is buried. Elspeth haunts her flat and one of the twins in particular, and ultimately causes their undoing.

I would be curious and would like to hear some feedback on the novel from actual real-live twins on the behavior of the younger set of twins in the novel. They are in their early twenties in the story and still dress alike, sleep in the same bed, and go everywhere together. This seems a bit of a stretch to me, but then I've never had this kind of a kindredness either.

I find the subplot of the character of Martin to be interesting and romantic, and possibly more attractive to me than the main story. He is the twins' upstairs neighbor who works to overcome his paralyzing OCD to reunite with his wife.

You didn’t answer my question. I asked you about being in love. You said what it was like when your wife went away.

Martin sat down again. How young she is. When we were that young we invented the world, no one could tell us a thing. Julia stood with her hands clenched, as though she wanted to pound an answer out of him. “Being in love is…anxious,” he said. “Wanting to please, worrying that she will see me as I really am. But wanting to be known. That is…you’re naked, moaning in the dark, no dignity at all…I wanted her to see me and to love me even though she knew everything I am, and I knew her. Now she’s gone, and my knowledge is incomplete. So all day I imagine what she is doing, what she says and who she talks to, how she looks. I try to supply the missing hours, and it gets harder as they pile up, all the time she’s been gone.

If you're looking for another Time Traveler's Wife, you won't find it here. Niffenegger stated that she didn't want to write the same novel again, and she certainly didn't. 

The novel has several strengths. It's very clear that she did thorough research on the cemetery and the novel is full of the local history and the ornate Victorian funereal practices of the time of Highgate Cemetery's inception and hey day. The characters are well developed and have subplots of their own.

For me, however, the ending was weak and the fate of main characters left me somewhat dissatisfied. Still, it is worth the read, especially if you like ghost stories, funeral goth, and/or have an interest in an up-close look at a study of OCD.


Her Fearful Symmetry
Highgate Cemetery
The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger
"The Tyger" by William Blake


  1. I read it when it came out hoping it would be as good as Time Traveler's Wife but was very disappointed. This novel was so juevenille and the girls seemed so silly. I too thought the ending was very weak. I think she bombed this one. And I think the sales on it were weak too after reviews got out.

  2. Don't know when I'll get around to reading this one (if ever), but I'm still riveted by your summary of it from that weekend we spent at Great Wolf. So, I'd appreciate a spoiler one of these days....

  3. Hmmm, can't comment on the twins thing - not even a sibling! I'll certainly add this one to my to-read list. Maybe one day you'll even get a review from me!

  4. I'm with you, Deana. Would love to get some recommendations from you sometime.
    Angie- I'll fill you in over soccer practice!
    Jess, you have a great reading list yourself. I need to read some of yours!

  5. Sounds a little too sad to me. I don't like books that have an ending that don't make me happy! :)