Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

When Her Fearful Symmetry came out this year and all the reviews started to pour in, I knew that I was going to have to wait to read it.  The results were of resounding disappointment – it was no where near as good as Time Traveler’s Wife, to most it was mediocre, to others it was downright infuriating.  I wanted to let that sit a while before I read this book, and I knew that I was going to read it eventually because Time Traveler’s Wife remains one of my all-time favorite books.  Sitting here, with Her Fearful Symmetry read and this review waiting to be written, I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel at all.

When Elspeth dies, she leaves a very unconventional will.  She leaves her flat, right next to Highgate Cemetery, to her twin nieces that she has never met (Valentina and Julia).  But Elspeth does not completely depart from this world; she haunts the flat and has ongoing conversations with her former lover Robert and the twins.  There is also Martin, the twins’ OCD neighbor.

What I can say about it is that I never didn’t enjoy reading it.  As I was reading it, I thought the novel was interesting and well-written.  There were elements of Time Traveler’s Wife that I loved, repackaged and still fresh.  There was the supernatural element of the ghost story, which I thought was done quite successfully.  There is Niffenegger’s gorgeous language and her perfect sense of place.  I have never been to Highgate Cemetery, I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen pictures of it, but she did a fabulous job explaining it and completely putting me there.  The best thing about this novel?  Martin and the ending.  I thought Martin’s storyline was endlessly fascinating, especially at the beginning, and I wanted more from him.  I also loved Robert; he was flawed and another favorite to read about.  The ending of this novel was, for me, exactly what was needed.  It does not end happily, not really, and there were plenty of twists that I did not see coming.  I’m so glad that Niffenegger ended this one as she did, because otherwise the novel would have suffered greatly for it.

Where Her Fearful Symmetry fails is in making me care about Valentina and Julia.  Much of the plot revolves around Valentina and how she feels suffocated by her relationship with Julia, but I honestly don’t know why, other than the fact that Julia wanted to drop out of college and somehow dragged Valentina with her.  The pathos of their relationship is never adequately explained and I needed that explanation to connect with the twins.  Instead, I connected much more completely with Robert and Martin, whose complexities are explained fully and simply.  Instead of coming off as trapped and tragic, Valentina comes off as immature and whiny.   I wish that there hadn’t been any twins in this novel at all, but that we had just gotten to see how the lives of Martin and Robert played out after the death of their mutual friend, who happens to be haunting her flat.

Even with that complaint, I still really enjoyed reading Her Fearful Symmetry.  I particularly liked this quote near the beginning of the novel:

James said, “I saw a ghost once. […] I was quite small, only a lad of six.  […] So, I was put to bed upstairs.  I remember lying there with the blanket pulled up to my chin, my mother kissing me goodnight, and there I was in the dark, not knowing what terrible thing might be ready to slink out from the wardrobe and smother me…”

Jessica smiled.  Robert thought it might be a smile for the morbidly fantastical imaginations of children.

“So what happened?”

“I fell asleep.  But later that night I woke up.  There was moonlight coming in through the window, and the shadows of the tree branches fell onto the bed, waving gently in the breeze.”

“And then you saw the ghost?”

James laughed.  “Dear chap, the branches were the ghost.  There weren’t any trees within a hundred yards of that house.  They’d all been cut down years before.  I saw the ghost of a tree.”

Robert thought about it.  “That’s rather elegant.  I was expecting ghouls.”

Well, that’s just it, you see.  I think perhaps if that sort of thing does happen – ghosts – it must be more beautiful, more surprising than all these old tales would have us believe.” (62)

So, yes, I recommend this book.  It is a good ghost story, but it definitely fails on some levels.  When I read Time Traveler’s Wife, I sobbed at the end for Claire and Henry because I felt like I knew them.  In that sense, Her Fearful Symmetry is a disappointment when you compare it to that first novel.  However, if Niffenegger had written this book under a different name and I never tried to compare the two?  Maybe I would feel a little differently.  And an absolutely perfect ending?  Hard to come by.

So go read  this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: The Book Lady’s Blog, S. Krishna’s Books, Devourer of Books, Books on the Brain, Stainless Steel Droppings, Dear Author, Fantasy Book Critic, Rhapsody in Books, Literate Housewife, At Home With Books, 5 Minutes for Books, eclectic/eccentric, Care’s Online Book Club, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Presenting Lenore, books i done read, Jenny’s Books, Savidge Reads.

Did I miss yours?  Leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it in!

29 thoughts on “Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

  1. Ah yes. I think I agree with everything you share here. No, ‘think’ is wrong. I DO agree. Overall, the book was quite interesting and I believe the author is one of the most creative and talented out there. Let’s hope she writes many more.

    1. Care: I agree completely with you about Niffenegger. She’s such a talented writer, I will read anything she writes and love most of it, I’m sure.

  2. TTW has to be possibly one of my all time favourites too. I reviewed it harshly at first, as I found it hard to get into, but it also left me emotionally charged by the end. As for this new one, well poor Niffeneger must have had a hard time trying to equalise the excellence with her already revered debut! I haven’t read Her Fearful Symmetry yet, I admit I bought it just last week in the UK, and it’s on my list of books to read. Due to my work load I wish I could get through them a little quicker but alas…! I will try not to compare them as you stated.

    1. Socialpaws: It’s one that reads fairly quickly and you can pick up after not having read it for a while and still be interested.

  3. I haven’t read this yet and I’m not sure if I will anytime soon. The negative reviews have made an impact, I guess. I have to admit that I am curious. And yes, it could be true that this is really a case of people having expectations that were too high because they loved the Time Traveler’s Wife.

    1. Iris: I’m still really glad I read this one. The reading experience was not a bad one and I don’t regret it, that’s for sure. I definitely think this one was hurt by high expectations, especially in character development. I honestly never expected that to be the problem with HFS. Plot inconsistencies and over the top weird were things I thought I would have the problems with.

  4. I feel like I might be one of those lucky few who have half a chance at liking this book because I really did not like The Time Traveler’s Wife at all! So any comparison between the two is likely to be favorable to the other book… That said, I’m not sure that I’m all that excited about reading more Niffenegger. This is one of those books that is on my “maybe if I easily come by it I’ll read it” lists… 😉

    1. Charley: I really loved the ending of this one though! Can I just say, I love how succinct you are with everything you say!

  5. Man…I am so in the minority with this book. I loved everything about this one. I truly did. Even the twins. I found them so intriguing. Totally agree with you about Martin! I loved him. He was incredible. For me, I couldn’t compare this one to TTW because it was so very different in the way it felt. I could never say that I loved it any more than that novel because TTW will always hold a special place in my heart. But in it’s own way, this one does too.

    1. Chris: I so wanted to love everything about it! I tried! I just couldn’t get into the twins. I agree that TTTW and HFS felt very different in many ways.

  6. I’ve seen this book all over the place and a lot of reviewers definitely picked up on the strong sense of place and the well-crafted language. Although I’m still not sold on it, I have to say that I love the title!

    1. EL Fay: I’m not sure Her Fearful Symmetry seems like one you would particularly like (judging from your reviews) but it might surprise you!

  7. I liked this book a lot, but I agree with you that the twins weren’t well fleshed out; and actually, I had a hard time figuring out what Robert was about too. Martin, of course, worked perfectly, and I thought the supernatural aspects were very strong. As you say, reactions to this book would probably have been very different if not for the expectations garnered by TTTW. I’m curious to see what sort of thing Niffenegger does next.

    1. Jenny: I actually really liked Robert, but I explained away a lot of his behavior with grief. Supernatural aspects were fabulous here. I will absolutely be reading Niffenegger’s next book!

    1. Thomas: The premise for TTTW is odd, but it works so well! I think my review comes off as sounding like I cared for this book less than I actually did. I really enjoyed reading it. I’ll add your review to the list!

  8. The Time Traveler’s Wife is also one of my favorite books of all time, so I know I’m going to read this some day. Same with you I’ll try to wait for things to settle a bit, so I can manage my expectations and decide things for myself. Hope I will like it. I really do.

    1. Mee: I don’t really want it to seem like I didn’t like this one, because I did. There were just some things that weren’t perfect.

  9. Hey Ms. Lu! As you could probably tell from the e-mail I sent, I was very much looking forward to reading your review of this book. I wish we could sit over a cup of Chai and discuss it ad nauseam. Like pretty much everyone else, I ADORED The Time Traveller’s Wife. I loved it so much that I never even considered watching the movie–I didn’t want big screen images to interfere with my memories of the book. I consider Audrey Niffenegger one of today’s most talented writers. And the writing in Her Fearful Symmetry did not disappoint. The woman can WRITE! I loved her descriptions of the cemetery and the character development of Martin (loved him!), Robert and Elspeth. What I didn’t like was the twins. They were beyond creepy and their characters were so weirdly underdeveloped. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were an afterthought. The only problem with that is, their story was absolutely pivotal to the outcome of the story. So that left me thinking, “Huh.” I didn’t understand Robert’s attraction to Valentina (underdeveloped), or why Valentina felt she had to stage her own death instead of just confronting her twin. I can see if she was in an abusive relationship with Julia, but that really wasn’t the case. I found myself more than a little baffled by Valentina. That being said, I absolutely think it was worth the read. And I’m still thinking about “what happened next” with Elspeth/Valentina. Thanks for your careful review, Lu!

  10. This book is on my TBR pile for this month and I haven’t gotten to it because 3 of my friends keep going on about how much they hated it. Thanks for your honest review and actually giving me some reasons for why you were disappointed. I am dreading it a little less now.

    1. Ash: I definitely didn’t hate it. I’m not even sure disappointed is the right word. It was just that there were some things that could have been done so much better.

  11. How did I not comment on this one? I LOVED the first half of this, and had multiple problems with the last half. I agree about the ending… it left me feeling kind of disappointed, or maybe just unsure of how I felt. I felt like things did not go the way I wished they would, at all. However, I LOVED Martin, and I loved the cemetery. And I really enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife.

    Why oh why did she have to kill the kitten?? I couldn’t take it.

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