Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

photo credit of Highgate Cemetery here

“Welcome to Highgate Cemetery,” Jessica said. “Robert will be your guide. He is one of our most Learned Guides, an historian of the Victorian Era, and is writing a book about this cemetery. All of our work is done on a voluntary basis, and every year we must raise over three hundred and fifty thousand pounds just to keep the cemetery open.” Jessica flirted with them as she spoke, and exhibited the green box. “As you leave, a volunteer will be stationed at the gate with this green box, and any help you can give will be Much Appreciated.” Robert watched the tourists fidget. Jessica wished them a Pleasant Tour and went back to the office. She felt a flutter of excitement. Why? She stood at the office window and watched Robert gather his group in front of the Colonnade steps. He stood two steps up and spoke to them, looking down, gesturing. From where they stood, the tourists could not see anything but greenery and the steps. Those girls look extraordinarily like Elsepth. How amazing life is. I hope he’ll be all right. He looked a bit pale.
Robert tried to clear his mind. He felt as though he were watching himself, as though he had separated into two Roberts, one of whom was calmly giving a tour; the other mute with nerves, trying to think what he might say to the twins. Bloody hell, you’d think you were seventeen. You don’t have to talk to them. They’ll talk to you. Wait.
This is what Robert was thinking as he began to lead the tour group through Highgate Cemetery in London. It is his job to be a tour guide while he works on his dissertation, but he has never expected that two members of his group would be twins. Would be, in fact, the nieces of his newly deceased lover, Elspeth.

Elspeth has left her home in London to her nieces, under the condition that they live in it for one full year. And, that they never let her sister, the twin’s mother, inside. There has been a terrible rift between the two, one which divided them while Elspeth was alive and continues on into her death. Because with Audrey’s writing, time is never as we know it. Even death becomes a novelty, a concept which Audrey pounces on like a little kitty as she bats it back and forth across our consciousness.

I loved how she played with my mind, bringing the twins Julia and Valentina to London where they meet Elspeth’s lover, Robert. Where they live under Martin who suffers so horribly with OCD that his wife has finally left him, returned to Amsterdam where she doesn’t have to live under the constraints which Martin imposes on his life. Marijke’s letter to Martin includes this eloquent explanation:
I don’t know if you can understand, but I will try to explain. I need to live my life without being always vigilant to calm your fears. I am tired, Martin. You have worn me out. I know that I will be lonely without you, but I will be more free. I will find myself a little apartment and open the windows and let the sun and the air come in. Everything will be painted white, and I will have flowers in all the rooms. I will not have to always enter the rooms with my right foot first, or smell bleach on my skin, on everything I touch. My things will be in their cupboards and drawers, not in Tupperware, not wrapped in cling film. My furniture will not wear out from being scrubbed too much. Maybe I will have a cat.
Perhaps she finds a cat. I don’t really remember. The cat that I do remember is the Little Kitten of Death. That particular kitten is found by the twins; she comes in her ghostly attire into their home with ghastly consequences. Elspeth, not really dead as we would understand her to be, discovers certain skills she has. Certain abilities which could be construed as gifts. Until they are used for malice rather than kindness.
Her Fearful Symmetry is the symmetry between twins, to be sure, but also between mothers and daughters. Aunts and nieces. The line between the living and the dead.
(Thus ends my final read for the RIP VI. It was quite an interesting one, a truly haunting story which I won’t soon forget.)
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38 comments

  1. Marg, it took a definite turn for the worst at the end…all of a sudden, this pleasantly intriguing story becamse so very dark! But, the thing I'll always admire about Audrey is how she is able to tell a story; how she is able to play with my mind and cause me to think in different paths.

  2. Having read and loved 'The Time Traveler's Wife', I was really looking forward to reading 'Her Fearful Symmetry'. I was so disappointed.

    The set up of the novel was interesting by as the book progressed, I felt that it unravelled into something unbelieveable and in some scenes, quite offensive. The only part of the novel I enjoyed, was the plot involving Martin.

    Reading this novel has put me off reading any more of Niffenegger's novels.

  3. I didn't like her time travel book.. put it down and never picked it up again.. but this sounded pretty good..and yet the comments tend to put it off to me. ah well, eventually I will “try” it!

  4. Spangle, my favorite part was about Martin, too. In fact, is it scary that I can relate to a person with OCD? :) I think this book is quite different than Time Traveler's Wife because this one deals with the darker side of people. The unrestrained, almost evil side. Okay, evil. I can see it isn't for everyone, and I myself didn't love it…but, I certainly did find it intriguing.

  5. Deslily, Audrey is not an easy author to 'enjoy'. I find that readers either love her or not. There's very little between ground. Perhaps you'd find your time better spent with another book? But, The Night Bookmobile is an easy picture book (which I remember Christ also loving) so you should look into that one.

  6. Terre Madre, it's hard to wrap one's mind around time travel books. One has to 'suspend' one's disbelief as my mother taught me. There's no sense trying to make it all fit into the order of the world as we live it.

  7. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife (once I stopped trying to figure out how old the characters were in each scene!), but this one hasn't called to me. Maybe I'll give the audio a try. That seems to be a good alternative when I don't want to invest too much time trying a book about which I'm on the fence.

    I have a music post to share with you if you plan to have a What Are You Listening To Wednesday post today. :)

  8. What bothered me mostly about the “Time Travelers Wife” was her constant need to use stereotypes to describe the minority characters in the book, I felt there was no need for that. I also did not feel there was a connection between Henry and Clare, plus i was kind of gross out in that encounter with a much older Henry and a very young Clare. I wish I could say I enjoyed it but I really didn't at all.

  9. Les, I always admire how you listen to audio books. I've reserved The Night Circus on cd because the hardcover copy at our library had about 9,000 holds. I'll let you know how I fare with the audio 'translation'.

    Partly because of my reticence to listen (a good trait in a teacher, n'est ce pas? :) I've been posting What Are You Listening To Wednesdays. So very glad you joined in this week!!!

  10. Terra Madre, I know so many people who were troubled by the age difference between Henry and Claire. Most of the women in one of my book clubs refused to read it because of that very factor. It didn't bother me because I feel we're involved with all the parts of a person we love (their child side as well as their adult side), but I can certainly see how it upset readers. Audrey's writing is not for the faint of heart!

  11. I liked this book too, for the lovely writing and the beautiful setting. I didn't love it because the plot seemed hackneyed to me (maybe it's me, but ouijja boards might have interested me when I was a teenager). Now, the plot resolution just disappointed me.

    Plus, the ghosts actions seemed so immoral, it didn't seem right that she got a second chance at life again

  12. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife, too, and this isn't as wonderful as that one in my opinion. Still, it's terribly creative, imaginative, and in many ways fearful. I think it's “signature Audrey”: bizarre but compelling at the same time.

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