Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Although I wrote several sheduled posts before leaving for CBLI, I failed to make any of them book reviews and now I find myself really behind the eight ball in trying to catch up with reviews for books I completed weeks ago. Thus for the brief synopsis of this fascinating second novel by Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveller's Wife), I merely copied the novel description from the Amazon listing:

"When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers--with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another.

"The girls move to Elspeth's flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building's other residents. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin's devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth's elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt's neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including--perhaps--their aunt, who can't seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

"Niffenegger weaves a captivating story in Her Fearful Symmetry about love and identity, about secrets and sisterhood, and about the tenacity of life--even after death."

I was totally absorbed in this book while listening to the audio version of it. I couldn't wait for an excuse to drive off somewhere in my husband's car (my only vehicle CD access). In fact, one day I drove an hour for a book group that had been incorrectly advertised on a blog, but didn't mind the extra time at all because it was spent listening to this incredibly interesting story (I did mind the gas expense, however).

I was especially enthralled by Martin's character because he suffered severely with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. While my husband's OCD tendencies don't even come close to Martin's, it was interesting to observe the wife's reaction to the stresses of living with someone for whom everything must be done in a certain, specific way. Although I could have done without the attempt at romance between the teen twin and this aging deranged man, I am glad the author incorporated Martin and Marjike into the story (I would have never known the pronunciation for Marjike [mar-eye-ka] if I hadn't listened to the audio version).

I also enjoyed the locale of this story. I was privileged to visit Highgate Cemetery with my good friend, David Mitchell. It was an extraordinary visit and this book brought back those happy memories. Plus, the book mentioned Postman's Park, a favorite haunt of mine (near Little Britain Street) when I visited and lived in London. I have several photos in my scrapbooks of the small memorial plaques dedicated to individuals who gave their lives trying to save someone else (things like:

"Edward Morris, aged 10, drowned in the Grand Junction Canal trying to save his companion when they went swimming in the summer of 1897. David Selves, aged 12, died in Woolwich Reach "supporting his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms," September 1886. At 9 years old, William Fisher was the youngest: he died in Walworth in July1886 trying to save his little brother from being run over in the street." (taken from

The ghost story, with the element of communication with the trapped ghost of Elspeth, was highly intriguing. I think I could have been fine with the whole thing until the "Little Kitten of Death" was introduced.

Towards the end, I felt like the story line waxed a bit convoluted, but it was still interesting and full of surprises. I think I may have liked it better if there had been a different ending, since this one left a bad taste in my mouth, but I cannot think of how it could have ended differently.

It is, without a doubt, a riveting read. I will happily open another Niffenegger book if she writes one. She has a great ability for asking the what if questions that stretch life as we know it.

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