Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger


Well, fittingly enough, I read this on the first official day of the RIP IV Challenge.  I got an ARC from the lovely and obliging people at the Regal Literary Agency (thanks, y’all!  I was so, so pleased to have it!) on Monday, and read it all in one go yesterday evening.

In Her Fearful Symmetry, due for proper release at the end of this month, Elspeth Noblin dies and leaves her London flat to her twin nieces, daughters of her own estranged twin Edie.  They can have it on their twenty-first birthday, and must live in it for one year before they can sell it; their parents are not to be allowed in the flat.  Julia and Valentina very sensibly accept this offer (I am mildly hoping that my mother has a rich estranged London twin like this who can conveniently die soon and let me do this exact thing), and take up residence in the flat, which is just outside Highgate Cemetery.  The flat downstairs contains Elspeth’s lover, Robert, who is missing her terribly; the upstairs flat contains Martin, whose crippling OCD has caused his wife to leave; and the twins’ flat contains Elspeth’s possessions.  And her ghost.

For a ghost story, this one isn’t very spooky.  That isn’t a criticism!  It’s just that the aim of a ghost story tends to be to give you spine prickles, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal here.  Remember how Audrey Niffenegger wrote about time travel in a clinical, matter-of-fact sort of way?  Time travel was part of the characters’ lives, and they try to figure out the rules and deal with it as best they can in their everyday lives.  Some people deal with it perfectly sensibly, and other people do not manage quite so well.  The ghosty aspects of Her Fearful Symmetry are handled in a similar fashion – this isn’t what I expected, but I liked it.

I loved the theme of identity, creating yourself as an individual, that runs all through the book.  The central characters are so vivid (apart from Robert – what is Robert all about?  I couldn’t figure him out), and they all struggle to decide who they are apart from the significant people in their lives.  It was completely opposite to The Time Traveler’s Wife, how Henry and Clare create themselves as a couple, but equally intriguing.  I particularly liked the friendship that develops between Julia and Martin, who are both going through the same thing – trying to be healthy and sane as their main life person is tugged away from them.  Martin’s OCD was not quite on, as is often the case when book characters have OCD, but apart from that, Martin was generally a wonderful character.  Maybe my favorite character.

Except, maybe, for the graveyard.  Highgate Cemetery is a character in this novel: the people buried in it and the secrets that it keeps (and Robert knows) are all very much a part of the story.  I love the scenes set in the cemetery, and I wish we could have had a bit more of the cemetery people – maybe that would have helped explain who Robert was.  Highgate feels like a co-conspirator in the – let’s say, in the slightly sketchier events of the novel, and like a haven for the nicer moments.

Her Fearful Symmetry is much more me than The Time Traveler’s Wife – I mean with the ghosts and the graveyard and the sisters – and I thought I might like it better.  Right now I am not sure.  It is a quieter book than Time Traveler’s Wife.   I mean that it doesn’t have that same wrenching emotional pull, and it is more understated about all the things that happen.  They are so different it’s hard to compare.  Which is great!  On with more books by Audrey Niffenegger that will all be individual and different and wonderful!

Hey, and this book mentioned David Tennant!  The twins one time watch that episode of Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (he does have long fingers), with the horse, and the Doctor gets smashed and Rose says, “Oh look at what the cat dragged in – the Oncoming Storm”, and I love that line and I love that episode!  David Tennant, hooray!

I have some very spoilery things to say, but I won’t say them until after the book has been released.  I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.  I advise you to trot out and buy this book promptly upon its release, because I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely be rereading it and, I expect, enjoying it more and more with successive rereadings.  I love a ghost story.  I loved this one.

Other reviews: Carl’s non-spoiler review & spoiler review, At Home with Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Books on the Brain, the book lady’s blog, Devourer of Books, 5 Minutes for Books, The Literate Housewife, S. Krishna’s Books, Yule Time Reading, let me know if you’ve reviewed this and I will add a link!

25 thoughts on “Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

    • I was totally worried that I wouldn’t like it! I liked The Time Traveler’s Wife so much and I was worried about being disappointed in Audrey Niffenegger’s second book.

    • It was fun reading it early – but it’s sort of a bummer not being able to see what everyone else in the blogosphere thinks. I want everyone else to read it soon!

  1. I just finished this tonight. Wow, what a roller coaster of a reading experience. I had some real problems with parts of the book, as detailed in my spoiler review, but it doesn’t change the fact that Audrey Niffenegger crafted another winner.

    • It’s such a relief, isn’t it? Because there are authors that publish an incredible debut novel and then that was it! They had one really amazing book in them, and after that it’s all downhill. (Maybe Harper Lee was sensible to stop at one.) So I’m pleased that Audrey Niffenegger will apparently be able to carry on writing engrossing, thought-provoking books. Yay.

    • You don’t? Did you not like The Time Traveler’s Wife? Or you liked it too much and nothing can ever live up to it? Or you don’t like ghost stories? I am so curious!

  2. Hello, I cannot wait to read this book! Also because I have a soft spot for Highgate Cemetary. It’s such an atmospheric and beautiful place.

    • I hope you enjoy the book when it comes out! I so regret not going to Highgate the last time I was in London now, but I just didn’t know about it. Or I did vaguely, in the Karl-Marx-was-buried-there sense, but I wasn’t that excited about Karl Marx. And I love cemeteries anyway…

  3. I loved this book! I know what you mean about Robert though. Martin and Mariijke were my favourite characters, I thought they were so sweetly portrayed.

    I know Highgate and the Cemetery well as I am a Londoner and she did a great job of describing it – you should definitely make a visit.

    I could have written pages and pages for my review but I had to try and make it succinct…it’s hard to review a book like this without giving stuff away and spoiling it for people!

    • I know! And if it were out already, I wouldn’t worry about it, but I feel too guilty having spoilers when people actually can’t read the book first and then come read my spoilery review.

      It’s so unfortunate – I was in London just this past May, and since then I’ve been reading about all these wonderful London things I would have loved to have seen. Like the hotel where Oscar Wilde (my obsession!) got arrested, apparently you can go visit there and they will tell you about Oscar Wilde! And Highgate Cemetery, and I remembered about Postman’s Park after I got back, and – obviously the only thing for it is another vacation!

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on HFS, Jenny.

    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!


  5. I think I had a similar reaction to you, but I think you enjoyed it slightly more than I did.

    Did you not find the David Tenant mention a bit weird? I’m not sure why it was there – it seemed as though she wanted to do some research into what people in the UK liked watching and threw that in to show she had dome her homework.

    • I didn’t even think of it as a research thing, the reference to David Tennant. I was thinking of her previous book, where she made reference to things she liked herself, like the Violent Femmes – I assumed this was more of the same. I was struck by how specific a reference it was, but the episode referenced has parallels to Elspeth’s situation with Robert, so I could see the point there.

      Do you think it was a homework thing? If I had written a book I can see mentioning Doctor Who, wherever the book was set. Just cause I love Doctor Who.

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  9. This is a fabulous review – I love that you mention the vividness of characters (I answered your comment at my post before reading this which might have been an error on my part but I’ll leave it)
    I agree that this is a non-spooky ghost story but it can still be called creepy in a non-scary way, maybe? LOVE your identifying the theme of being an individual, too. Yes.
    I’m starting to think that this book will have staying power – much to be bothered with but not a weakness of the plot? or it cleverly pushes ambiguous buttons. It’s going to be one of those books you’ll have to read to find out what the hubbub is about! I do think the photo of Ms.Niffenegger shows her as a serious and CLEVER woman.
    and I don’t know who David Tennant is – eek?! I glossed right over that without a thought. Am I lazy or uncultured?

    • I agree Niffenegger’s very very clever. Each of her books is so – I don’t know, you can tell it’s her writing, but her books are so different. I love that.

      Hahaha, you’re not lazy or uncultured; he’s not very well known in America, I don’t think! I wouldn’t have known who he was either if I hadn’t randomly started watching Doctor Who on a plane once. He plays the Doctor in the British television show Dr. Who; he had a small part in the fourth Harry Potter movie. He’s just EVERYWHERE in Britain right now, but not well-known over here.

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