#201 ~ Her Fearful Symmetry

Cover of Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Before I begin…

I do not include spoilers in my reviews as a general rule.  I don’t say anything in this review that in and of itself is a spoiler, but I do touch on common themes between Her Fearful Symmetry and The Time Traveler’s Wife that might tell you more than you want to know about Her Fearful Symmetry going in.  Please don’t read my third paragraph if this would impact your reading of this novel.

My review…

Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel tells the story of two sets of twins a generation apart. Elspeth and Edie Noblin were identical twins living in London until, under mysterious circumstances surrounding Edie”s husband, they parted company never to see each other.  Edie has identical twin daughters as well.  When Elspeth dies, she leaves her flat and much of the remainder of her estate to Valentina and Julia, the nieces she never knew.  There were a couple of interesting conditions: they must live in the flat together for a year before they could sell it and their parents must never under any circumstances enter the flat.  Valentina and Julia were in their early 20s and didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives.  Julia was the dominant twin and she convinced Valentina to move with her to London.  The separation from their parents and home in Chicago only heightened Valentina’s misgivings.   Will the move to London keep them close or tear them apart forever?

What makes this novel stand out for me is how rich it is in place and character.  Almost every place her characters spend time is painted in vivid detail. Even now, nearly a month after finishing this novel, I can see the dust on the piano in Elspeth’s apartment.  I can close my eyes and watch the animals scurrying around as Robert gives a tour through Highgate Cemetery.  I start to feel claustrophobic as I watch Julia walking through the piles of boxes on her way to Martin’s kitchen.  Martin’s apartment was a near perfect representation of his mind and the state of his life and relationships.  He is the creator of complicated crossword puzzles and life is falling apart because of the hold his OCD has taken over him. He most definitely would make sense out of life through patterns and counting.  He would go through the tasks of wrapping up and boxing those things that remind him of painful things yet keep those boxes close at hand.  The friendship he develops with Julia is among my favorite in a long time.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of the first books I reviewed on my blog.  It was also one of the most memorable.  I enjoyed it, but there were niggling things about it.  I can say much the same about Her Fearful Symmetry.  In The Time Traveler’s Wife, what bothered me the most was the inequity I perceived in Henry and Claire’s relationship.  Although it was not through Henry’s choice that he was able to travel through time, he did tell Claire as a young child that they would ultimately get married.  From that moment forward, Henry had the upper hand.  Henry could live his life as he pleased while he wasn’t traveling time while Claire knew her destiny before her adult life began.  Where is the choice in that?  Likewise, Her Fearful Symmetry also has a character with the upper hand in a familial relationship using otherworldly communication to manipulate someone she should love and protect at all costs to get what suits her needs.  As with Henry, whether the outcome was her intention all along is unclear.  That is what I find most thought-provoking.  At times this frustrates me like nothing else and at others it makes me want to pick the novel back up to see what I might have missed.

This is one of the most difficult reviews for me to write.  Her Fearful Symmetry does not deliver it’s ending to readers tied up in a neat bow.  There is so much to be unraveled and puzzled through.  On the one hand I loved and adored this novel. While it took me some time to warm up to the twins and Robert, I adored Martin almost instantly and found his character and his relationship with Julia beautiful.  On the other hand, the ending of the novel has been nagging at me since I finished it nearly four weeks ago.  I don’t feel at rest with it yet.  Perhaps I never will.  There is much to be explored and I am quite certain that many papers will be written about Elspeth, Julia, and Valentina.  I want nothing more than to study this novel with my favorite college professors.


Scribner has some wonderful resources, such as a crossword puzzle you can download – I’ll warn you, it’s difficult.  They also have this video of Audrey Niffenegger:

Her Fearful Symmetry is also on Facebook!  Click here for links to reviews, more videos, author photos (very fun), and a chance to win either an ARC copy or a hardcover edition just by becoming a fan before October 1st.


This is my first review for the R.I.P. Challenge.


To buy this novel, click here.

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  • At 2009.09.29 15:40, Stephanie said:

    I finally broke down and bought a copy of this book. I just couldn’t help myself! Great review.

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    • At 2009.09.29 16:23, Amy Reads Good Books said:

      Great review! I particularly like your analysis of the power dynamic. I always thought it was rather romantic, but you’re right, Henry does have more control for most of their relationship.

      • At 2009.09.29 16:23, Jo-Jo said:

        I didn’t read The Time Traveler’s Wife but did go to see the movie last night. I enjoyed it, but I did pick up on how you indicated Henry had the upper hand in the relationship…that was disturbing. I plan on reading this one within the next month and I’m definitely looking forward to it. Thanks for the review.

        • At 2009.09.29 16:39, Kathy said:

          I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book and I still don’t know what to think. I like my endings neatly packaged, so I really wonder if the book is for me.

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          • At 2009.09.29 16:53, Carol said:

            I’ve been seeing this a lot of places. I think I need to break down and order it.

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            • At 2009.09.29 17:18, Sandy said:

              I JUST bought this on my Kindle. I hope to finish what I am reading, then plunge into this one. I was dismayed to see that EW (who I usually trust) gave the book a C+, but that didn’t stop me. I don’t mind loose endings. Books with those endings often wander around in my brain longer, looking for the answers.

              • At 2009.09.29 17:26, Aimee said:

                Oh wow I really have to read this. I’ll admit I skimmed your review because of the spoilers – I’ll come back to read it once I’ve finished the book!

                • At 2009.09.29 20:41, Veens said:

                  I fear loose endings… they sometimes spoil the book for me…but this one sounds really good… esp. what you wrote in 2nd para wants me to get this one..

                  I haven’t read The Time Traveler’s Wife :() .. and I will have to get that first 🙂

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                  • At 2009.09.30 11:21, Tracie Yule said:

                    The not tied up in a neat bow is what I loved the most about this novel! This entire book lives in the gray. None are completely good, none are completely bad, some are more selfish than others, some are more giving. To me, that encompasses all human beings. There are some that we like more than others, but none are completely evil (to me, anyway) and that is why I loved this book 🙂

                    • At 2009.09.30 13:20, lisamm said:

                      Jen, In this line you said what I FELT so much better than I did in my review. “Likewise, Her Fearful Symmetry also has a character with the upper hand in a familial relationship using otherworldly communication to manipulate someone she should love and protect at all costs to get what suits her needs.”


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                      • At 2009.09.30 17:21, Bellezza said:

                        It’s interesting how the reviews I’ve read on this book point out the vague ending. While I’ve come to expect that from Japanese literature, I’m not sure how I’d feel about Audrey doing that to me. 😉 I loved reading your point about Henry having the upper hand in The Time Traveler’s Wife, a book I most definitely loved. It’s so true, poor Claire was almost a victim to some degree. It raises lots of questions about fate, does it not? Your review of Her Fearful Symmetry has me quite intrigued. I enjoyed it a lot.

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                        • At 2009.09.30 19:05, Alyce said:

                          My biggest question coming out of the book was whether or not Elspeth had planned ahead to do what she ended up doing. It was definitely thought-provoking.

                          • At 2009.09.30 19:24, S. Krishna said:

                            I totally agree, this book will stick with me for a long time. Great review!

                            • At 2009.09.30 20:59, Jennifer said:

                              Stephanie, Carol, Sandy and Aimee, I can’t wait to hear what you think.

                              Amy and Jo-Jo, the misuse of power is something that has stuck with me from both books. That’s pretty powerful and I wonder if it is intentional?

                              Kathy and Veens, this is a good book and it’s all about puzzles in a way. It’s not something to read when you want something light, but a great choice if you want something you can wrap your brain around.

                              Tracie, you are absolutely right about life being messy and not tidied up. I don’t necessarily think that anyone was entirely evil in this novel, but I really need to reread the book to determine what was going on in more depth. How much was manipulative and how much was accidental?

                              Lisa, thank you so much! I could tell by your review that we are on the same wavelength about that.

                              Bellezza, the key to Niffenegger’s fiction is that nothing is completely obvious. I may see Henry, for example, the way that I do, but I don’t think that Henry does. Would he have not done that had he seen it that way? It does bring up a lot of good discussion points on faith and responsibility to those you love or should be under your care.

                              Alyce and Swapna, this is definitely the book to talk about this fall. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to read it.

                              • At 2009.10.03 17:34, Jen - Devourer of Books said:

                                Ah, wasn’t this just wonderful? *sigh*

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                                  • At 2009.10.04 15:08, Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said:

                                    I felt the same way with the ending. It’s not really satisfying in most ways, but I can’t really think of a “better” way to end it. I’m torn about Elspeth too and feel like that’s what makes the book warrant a re-read. I had a hard time writing this review too, it wore me out this week as well!

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                                    • At 2009.10.07 12:13, Serena (Savvy Verse & Wit) said:

                                      Sounds like a book that would generate some discussion…particularly if you read the two books back to back. Maybe I will suggest it to my bookclub!

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                                        • At 2009.10.08 14:51, Irene said:

                                          Well that does it! I am going out and buying this book. What a riveting review, and I cannot wait to read this book despite the pile that sits screaming, “Read me first.” A book review that conjures up such memories four weeks after reading it, is certainly one I want to investigate.
                                          Well done, Jennifer!

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                                            • At 2009.11.13 17:01, b*babbler said:

                                              Ooh – just finished this and came back for your review. Wow… that ending? I can see it sitting with me for a good long while (and not sitting comfortably, mind you).

                                              Again, while Niffenegger’s writing may have some flaws, the stories she tells are riveting and thought-provoking.

                                              Fantastic review, by the way!

                                              • At 2010.01.06 08:45, Care said:

                                                LOVE your ‘before I begin’. and how did I miss this review when I wrote my post (I’ll add a link?). This is a very good review and I love that even though you don’t really offer spoilers, you do an effective job explaining a LOT. EFFECTIVE. and this book is AFFECTIVE! I have been reading all these reviews and loving the insight and conundrums offered. I think my appreciation is increasing the longer away from it I am (and the more I read both positive and negative reviews.) Thank you.
                                                and personally, I don’t think she knew what would happen but she DID suspect it…

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