Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Things that make me sad include: wars, crying children, charity TV adverts, homeless people, biting into an unexpectedly mushy apple, hearing the words ‘your train has been cancelled’, making a cup of tea and then realising there IS NO MILK and being cold, hungry and tired all at the same time. But WORSE than all of these sad sad things is when I finish a book I have adored and desperately want to clamber back inside the story and make it last longer, make it tell me more about the characters, make it answer all those burning questions it has annoyingly left unresolved…but this can never happen and so I am left a little bereft, with the world somebody else was so kind as to create for me still swirling around in my head, unsure of what to do with itself.

This is how I feel right now. Her Fearful Symmetry is over for me. I have read all the words on the pages, some of them twice. There is nothing new to discover, no new pages to turn. I can no longer feel smug that I am wielding a copy of a book that no one else is allowed to read yet. All of my other books are depressingly available.

But! I have experienced the joy that is the reading experience of Her Fearful Symmetry and this joy will be longlasting. I want you all to also experience this joy and so I demand that you preorder this book so that on the 1st of October when it is on general release you can delve inside the strange and mesmerising world of Vautravers and its inhabitants.

So, the bit you have been waiting for…the review! I am being very careful so as not to spoil anything so if it sounds a bit confusing I do apologise, I am simply trying to protect your enjoyment when you read it for yourselves.

First things first: this is not The Time Traveler’s Wife Part Two. So don’t go in comparing it to that. It doesn’t really have the same emotional intensity, but it is just as gripping and tense and wonderful. It does share the same implausable plot, however, and as with the whole time travelling situation in her previous book, you have to accept that it makes completely no sense and could never happen in real life, shrug, and move on regardless. If you are the type who likes to pick holes in the logic of such situations as time travelling and ghosts and souls and so on and so forth then you probably won’t be able to handle the suspension of disbelief involved in reading the book. Consider yourself duly warned.

And so to the plot. The book is essentially about two sets of twins. The former set are Edie and Elspeth, English twins who grow up together and are completely inseparable, until Jack, a handsome American walks into their lives and gets engaged to Elspeth, then leaves her for Edie, who elopes with Jack to America. They have twin daughters in due course, Julia and Valentina, and after Edie goes back to England to visit Elspeth with the twins when they are babies, Edie and Elspeth never speak again. There is the belief by all who know them that they hate each other because of the Jack situation but we find out fairly quickly that this is not the case, as they secretly write to each other, though Edie always burns the letters as soon as she has read them. The book opens with Elspeth dying of cancer and Edie receiving her last letter, telling her that by the time she gets it, she will be dead.

So it all starts rather mysteriously. What is the real relationship between Edie and Elspeth? Why do they correspond in secret? Have they really not spoken for over twenty years? The mystery, and belief that Elspeth and Edie hated each other deepens when Elspeth’s will reveals that she has left her beautiful flat that overlooks London’s Highgate Cemetery (a very expensive area for those who don’t know London) and her millions of pounds to Julia and Valentina, whom she hasn’t seen since they are babies, on the condition that they move to England when they are 21 and live in her flat for a year before selling it. Oh, and Edie and Jack are never allowed to set foot in it.

In the meantime, before the twins arrive in London, we are introduced to the fellow inhabitants of the large house that is divided into flats, Vautravers, which contains Elspeth’s flat. Above Elspeth’s flat live Martin and Mariijke, a middle aged married couple. Martin has OCD and can’t leave the flat; Mariijke loves him desperately but can’t cope with having to live with his illness and all the restrictions it puts on her life. Early on she moves back to Amsterdam, her hometown, and says she won’t come back. If Martin wants to be with her, he has to come and get her. As Martin can’t even step outside of his front door, this leaves him living a lonely and bereft existence, trapped in his flat and paralysed by the many rituals he is convinced he must perform.

Below Elspeth is Robert, her thirty something lover of several years, who is devastated by Elspeth’s death to the point where he is finding it difficult to function. He is writing a thesis on Highgate Cemetery, which is beautifully and meticulously depicted throughout, and works there as a guide. The Cemetery backs on to the house and it is a large part of his life, especially after Elspeth is buried in there, in the family tomb. He desperately misses Elspeth and spends a lot of his time in her flat still, talking to her, unaware that she is actually there all along.

And yes, that is the supernatural element of the book. Elspeth’s body is dead but her soul isn’t; it haunts the flat, but it takes a while for her to be strong enough to make her presence known. By the time the twins move in, a year after her death, she can make things move and also make people cold, but she is still not visible. She can think exactly like she used to, and so, though she dies at the beginning of the book, we get to know her as a real character too.

The twins arrive and they are young, and naive, and completely inseparable. They remind Robert painfully of Elspeth. Robert looks out for them, as he also does for Martin, and as Valentina, known by her twin as ‘Mouse’, the meeker of the two girls, becomes increasingly aware of Elspeth’s presence in the flat, he becomes increasingly involved in their lives. Robert and Valentina begin to fall in love, and Valentina grows to resent Julia’s possessiveness and inability to think of them as separate people. Julia won’t let Valentina pursue her own interests, and with Robert and Valentina’s relationship as a catalyst, their codependency begins to be threatened for the first time.

Elspeth is also threatened by Valentina and Robert’s relationship, and by this time she has managed to move objects, and so she is able to talk to them all. Robert loves to speak to her and so does Valentina, but Julia doesn’t show a huge amount of interest as she can’t see Elspeth in the way Valentina can. As Valentina spends more time with Elspeth and Robert, Julia feels more and more left out, and so begins to spend time with Martin upstairs, who she tries to help with his OCD.

Things come to a head when Elspeth realises the astonishing powers over the living she has, and Valentina comes to the conclusion that she can no longer go on living with Julia, as she will never be free to live the life she wants. Robert gets trapped in the middle, and from then on the shocks and twists just keep on coming, right until the breathtaking end.

This is just a brief plot summary and misses out a lot of the periphery action, essential yet minor characters, and general excitement, suspense, emotional engagement and excellent characterisation that we saw and loved in The Time Traveler’s Wife. It is complicated and dense and shocking in a The Sixth Sense the first time you watched it kind of way and I was literally gasping in surprise and disbelief on the train home tonight, with my hand pressed to my chest, as I read the last chapters which KEPT THROWING SHOCKING TWISTS AT ME! I have found this, as I did The Time Traveler’s Wife, literally unputdownable. It is a ghost story and it is supernatural, but it is also very human, very moving, and very real in the way it describes relationships and emotions. It is a novel of love, loss, desire, grief, friendship, devotion, loneliness and ambition, of dreams and longings and hope alongside confusion and despair. I adored it in every way that is possible and it has left me a bit floored and very upset that I have no more of her novels to read until the next one comes out.

I also have to say I was very impressed with Audrey’s research on London; she has done an excellent job of making the twins’ London realistic, and her love of Highgate Cemetery is clear. If you can, I do recommend visiting the cemetery while you read the book, as it is such an important character in the novel and there is nothing like looking at the beautiful, elaborate gravestones existing amongst the half fallen down Egyptian Avenue and overgrown greenery to understand the atmosphere of this book. I visited last year and the photos of the cemetery I have included were taken when I went; it is stunning and so worth visiting.

Buy this book, read it, fall in love with it. You will not be disappointed, I promise.

17 comments

  1. I loved Martin and Julia's relationship particularly – Martin was a great character, and Julia was very sweet with him. Glad you enjoyed this so much!

  2. Glad to read that you loved it so much and glad for Niffenegger that her follow up to Time Traveller's Wife doesn't disappoint. Now, the commentors on your last post were too polite to ask – but how did you get your advanced copy????? You are truly a fortunate lady (or a good reviewer which is more likely the case!)🙂

  3. You have just made this book absolutely irresistible, and I was already very keen to read it! But I'll have to wait…Sorry I haven't posted your sketch yet, btw, I will do it sooooon.And I also really hate it when you make a cup of tea and discover there is no milk! So bad. Especially early in the morning.

  4. I can't wait for my copy to arrive! So exciting.I adore your opening paragraph and the photographs; I am hoping to visit Highgate Cemetery whilst reading it.I am so happy that you loved this book.

  5. Oooh I just started this on the train to work this morning… I almost missed my stop am gripped already! Think that tonight will now be a complete write off. I am planning on going to Highgate on Sunday with The Converted One or maybe Saturday on my own, depending how the mood takes… and on the weather of course!

  6. Love the review! I only just read The Time Traveler's Wife, and I can't wait to read another book by Niffenegger – a desire increased by your review! I'm so glad it didn't disappoint.

  7. I want my copy to arrive TODAY! I'm in a slight state of despair at the moment, this May I made it to Kenwood House after walking around Hampstead for two and a half hours. I was so tired and didn't know which way Highgate cemetary was so I made back for Bloomsbury. Now I regret not having a lunch break and continuing on, sigh. Fabulous review and photos Rachel!

  8. Jenny – yes, I really loved Martin too. I loved your review and you gave me the inspiration to get a review copy so thank you very much!Samantha – I just emailed the publisher! Not sure who is publishing it in Australia but find out and send them an email – it's all it took!Simon – Good! You will love it I am sure. Yes, sadly it does come with the horrendous sticker, but it peels off, which is a relief. I am glad you share my horror of having no milk, and don't worry about the sketch – you're doing me a favour!Claire – Thank you. I just know you are going to love this too and I can't wait for your review! Go to Highgate as soon as you can, it's a wonderful tour and so atmospheric especially on a windy autumn afternoon. Simon – Isn't it just unputdownable?! I was holding it on my lap under my desk yesterday afternoon and sneaking a read of a few sentences at a time, I was that hooked! I hope you manage to get to Highgate at the weekend, it's beautiful this time of year. Can't wait for your review, either!Alana – Hello! Glad you liked the review – definitely get your hands on this as soon as it comes out!Darlene – Thank you! What a sad shame. But you can read this and feel like you've been. And then give it to R to read and make him fall in love with Highgate too, and then you won't have to try too hard to convince him to take you back to London to see it!

  9. It is only because of your review that I am going to buy a copy and not only that, I am EXCITED about reading this.

  10. I've not read Audrey's first book and am not sure I will, so therefore I wasn't really paying attention to her new one. Now that I read what it's about, I think I am going to have to go out and buy it. Anything Sixth Sense-like and twisty and turny is very appealing to me. I'm not familiar with Highgate Cemetary, but it sounds suitably atmospheric! Thanks for the heads up–am off to order it now!

  11. Hi, and thanks for writing this review of HFS! My name is Matt from Regal Literary, Audrey's literary agency.Readers of this blog might be interested in knowing that Regal is giving away ten advanced reader’s copies and three first edition hardcovers of the new Audrey Niffenegger book, Her Fearful Symmetry, on October 1st in a lottery to anyone who joins the facebook page as a fan and sends an e-mail to hfs@regal-literary.com. Good luck!http://www.facebook.com/pages/Her-Fearful-Symmetry/68080996784

  12. I loved this book too. The photos you included in your review are fantastic. It makes me want to walk the cemetery paths and absorb it first-hand. I'll have to make a point of it the next time I travel to London.

  13. I thought I left an extremely lengthy comment on here, full of praise of you, your blog, and this review–and somehow it didn't go through. I will sum things up by saying that this is the best review I've read (ever), I love your blog, I want to get a Master's in English/Literature someday as well, and I have one question concerning this book: Is there any sexual content too detailed for a girl in her early teens? I had to avoid The Time Traveler's Wife for this very reason. Thanks for a review that was enlightening, light, yet beautifully worded!

  14. Bloomsbury, I can't wait for your review! I know you'll love it!Danielle – This is not like The Time Traveler's Wife at all so I am sure this will delight you, especially as you love all things spooky!Lisa – Thank you! You must come to London and visit Highgate one day, it's worth the price of a plane ticket just to see the Egyptian avenue!Madeleine – You are so very kind! I am blushing! Don't worry, this has hardly any sex action in it and what there is isn't explicit as far as I remember. It's not based around a love story as such so you don't have to worry about that!

  15. I'm the odd one out … I thought this was dire! I managed to suspend disbelief through Time Traveller's Wife but not this time. And the Edie/Elspeth strand was so utterly predictable that I guessed it in the first few pages … as for the end, can only say that this is the daftest book I've read in ages. I think that's me done with Audrey Niffenegger. Apart from anything else, it was so woodenly written that I didn't care a fig who lived/died/haunted/etc etc Very nearly abandoned it half way though.

  16. I loved this book as well, I do agree with the above M that it was predictable, but that's why its not really a mystery – just mysterious. Thank you for including pictures of the cemetary! I have a blurb of a review of this book on my own blog, but it is not nearly as extensive… just a paragraph. Have favorited you on my computer, will be back!

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