Book Review #32 – Her Fearful Symmetry

What is more basic than the need of being known? It is the entirety of intimacy, the elixir of love, this knowing – Audrey Niffenegger.

My love for Audrey Niffenegger began in sixth form. The class was assigned to read The Time Traveler’s Wife over summer. The enormity of the story and the way it was written reminded me why I loved literature – it takes you away from your life momentarily, but at the same time it reflects it in the small anecdotes and the larger themes of love, loss and everything in between. When I found this Niffenegger book in a charity shop a few years ago, I had to have it. Of course, it has taken me all this time to take it off my rather dusty bookshelf.

After finishing Her Fearful Symmetry knowing all that I know, and guessing from the get go the twists and turns of the twins’ lives, I find that this quote is probably the most important of all the words Niffenegger has written. The love in this book is completely profound from the twins themselves, especially portrayed by the younger set; as well as the marital love between Edie and Jack, the unconditional love between Marijke and Martin, and the near obsessive love of Elspeth and Robert. It is the crux of everything that happens, setting them all up for a life that may have never happened if it wasn’t for this impulse, this feeling, this obsession. As everyone says: love can make you do crazy things.

The story follows two sets of twins, one from each generation: Edie and Elspeth; Julia and Valentina. The latter two girls are twenty-one and the daughters of Edie. Edie and Elspeth are estranged, living on other sides of the world having only kept in contact during the last year of Elspeth’s life. Julia and Valentina have never met Elspeth, so when it comes to her dying wish, it is a shock to everyone including her younger lover, Robert, what she wants: Julia and Valentina are to live in Elspeth’s flat in London – a small path away from Highgate Cemetary, an excellent setting for this novel – for at least one year; Edie and Jack are not allowed to step foot into that flat during this time.

The events which blossom from this one dying wish are life changing for the entire family and the immediate friends around them. It is as though Vautravers Mews and Highgate Cemetary have a bubble surrounding them which can be protruded and prodded by certain members at various times of the novel. Mostly, Julia and Valentina’s lives are affected. They change phenomenally throughout, for better and for worse. I say it like a marriage, because it is as though they are in one: a sisterly marriage. At the beginning of the novel, they are inseparable: they dress the same, eat the same, watch the same things, have the same routines, go to school together, drop out together… There is only one hint of difference at the beginning and that is when Valentina is making dresses for them both with Edie. When Edie say You can say no to her, it becomes clear who is the dominant twin.

Nevetheless, Valentina’s urge to be free of her sister is more and more apparent as the chapters go on. I can see why – Julia is the decision maker, she looks after her sister as if she were much younger than she, she is bold but she in turn feels as though Valentina is the favoured one, the more delicate one which frustrates her to no end. These frustrations pile, and with ghostly figure, Elspeth, haunting them, plus a new suitor for Valentina and a new friend for Julia, the perfect bubble they used to live in comes crashing down to reveal the real world. Suddenly, they are not inseparable and this kills Julia inside: she doesn’t know why her sister is beyond her reach and she can’t do anything to stop it.

In turn, Valentina comes to a drastic, tragic decision to untangle herself from Julia and their prison world. The decision is hidden from her sister of whom she used to share everything with. She tells her dead auntie who doesn’t do much to stop it and even takes the opportunity to make the best of it for herself, thus revealing her true colours.

Elspeth is the most complicated character, and probably the most prominent. Her personality shines right through, jumps out at you and grabs you by the face to keep your focus on her. She seems sweet and loving, gentle. Then, the curtains are dropped revealing an obsessive woman who needs to be in total control of every situation, even from beyond the grave. When she apologises, she seems sincere but there is always that notion that it is all part of an act. In the end, she wins but only momentarily: she does not have the last laugh.

The twists are exceptional even if I did see them coming; it is the obsessive detective-show-watcher and crime lover in me. Even from the beginning, I had an inkling of what the big secret was between Edie and Elspeth, but I didn’t figure out the reasons why, and I was glad to discover them during the later chapters. This story about the bonds of family, twins especially, is magnificent and slightly chilling. As an independent person, who loves spending time alone, doing my own thing, I could never imagine the constraints that are illustrated in Her Fearful Symmetry.

A truly fantastic read that will keep you hooked from beginning to end with loveable, complicated characters and dark secrets that tear families apart.

Have you read any of Niffenegger’s novels? Do you love the thin thread between reality and fantasy as much as I do?

Love, Faye x


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