I must admit that I had high hopes for Her Fearful Symmetry. Having read The Time Traveler’s Wife, and loving it so much, it was hard not to hold Audrey Niffenegger’s next book up to some very high standards. But, as any good book lover and reviewer should do, I tried to put these standards aside and enjoy this book for what it is – a different story.
Her Fearful Symmetry is the story of Valentina and Julia Poole, mirror-image American twins who inherit an old flat from their estranged (and now dead) Aunt Elspeth. The flat is in London, overlooking Highgate Cemetery, and there are only a few stipulations in the will. The first of these is that the twins will move into the flat when they are 21 and live there for 12 months and the second is that their parents are never allowed to enter.
This may seem like an odd request but Aunt Elspeth and her twin sister Edie (Valentina and Julia’s mother) have not spoken to each other for a long time. Why you may ask? This is a mystery that the twins really want to find out, so they travel to London and begin their new lives.
Enter Robert, Elspeth’s bereaved boyfriend who lives in the flat downstairs. Martin, the reclusive man who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder who is living upstairs. And finally, Elspeth herself who just can’t seem to leave her flat. Here you have a cast of unwittingly strange characters.
The story follows the lives (and death) of all of these characters as Valentina and Julia settle into their London life and their struggle as they try to make their way into adulthood. Not only do they have to navigate all the normal life changing moments (and the not so normal, like finding out they are sharing their flat with its previous occupant), but they have to try and work out a way to juggle their desire to do different things with the bond they share as twins.
I found this book to be a little hard to get into at first (as I struggled not to compare) but once the twins moved to London and the pace picked up, I found this to be an easy and enjoyable read. It had just the right levels of spooky mixed with normality to make it interesting.
That said, I found the story to be quite predictable. I guessed the mystery surrounding Elspeth and Edie early on and I guessed the ending of this story as soon as Valentina came up with her plan to try and sever the twin bond between her and the overpowering Julia.
Did I love this book? No. I did not. Did I like this book? Yes I did. This book is an engaging read, a little slow in parts but the characters are well fleshed out and interesting. I found Martin to be quite loveable (in a Monk kind of way) and Valentina was lovely. I could almost feel her frustration as she had to try and deal with Julia and her desire for everything to remain as it always has been, not understanding that life needs to change.
It brought up the issue of how hard it is to be an identical twin. To spend your time in utero and your childhood so close to another person who is basically a sum of yourself, then to have to move into adulthood and take your own paths and begin your own relationships. Harder still if one twin is willing to make the change yet the other is not.
Highgate Cemetery was a nice addition to the story. The stories of the people buried there and their deaths, was something I found very interesting. I love browsing old cemeteries and doing so through this novel was no exception.
If you are looking for another The Time Traveler’s Wife then don’t bother with this book. You won’t find it. This book is a work on its own and different in too many ways. But to me that is a good thing. It shows that Niffenegger is willing to take risks and try new things in order to write very different stories. It would be too easy to rehash the same things just because they worked the first time. I am glad she wrote something new and I hope she continues to do so.