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Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Audrey Niffenegger Website
Read an Excerpt or Listen to the Author Reading from the Novel
Order "Her Fearful Symmetry" HERE

INTRODUCTION: Audrey Niffenegger is the author of the big hit romantic sf novel "The Time Traveler's Wife" recently made into a movie and in her second offering she pens a darker novel which is a modern fantasy with weird characters and a strange but superb setting, featuring "real ghosts", identical twins, a cemetery and much more...

I was very excited about the novel when I heard of it and I jumped at an unexpected arc offer, read the novel on arrival since it hooked me from the first lines and I could not put it down to the end.

"Her Fearful Symmetry" is a stunning novel full of surprises, twists and turns with beautiful prose and great characters as well as a page turner. A true ghost story with twin middle-aged women and twin daughters of one of the original twins, set near Highgate Cemetery in England and featuring a very - and that's an understatement - eccentric cast of characters, the novel has a simple premise: what if ghosts are real and can sense their surroundings but only very weakly interact materially with it?

Some 21 years before the start of the book in 2004, Elspeth and Eddie are well off twin Londoners in their early 20's sharing everything for all their life until Elspeth meets Jack Poole a young American banker and gets engaged with him; later Eddie marries him and runs with him to Chicago where they raise energetic elder twin Julia and dreamer younger twin Valentina who is a mirror twin this time so she has some medical complications due to her unusual body configuration (heart on the right hand side and so on...)

Except for a short visit to see grandma when the twins are 4 months old, their mother and aunt remained estranged for the rest of their lives, while some years later Elspeth who was living near Highgate Cemetery and was about 31 "picks up" 22 year old "historical researcher" Robert who is obsessed with the cemetery and they remain together until her untimely cancer death in 2004 when Julia and Valentina are 20.

In her will Elspeth leaves all to the twin youngsters with the condition that on turning 21 they come and live one year in her apartment while Eddie and Jack are forbidden to enter it; Robert who kept his downstairs apartment and is cemetery tour guide, apartment building manager and writing his PhD thesis on the Highgate history is supposed to help the girls settle in.

Add to that the upstairs ultra-eccentric older neighbor Martin whose Dutch wife just took an "extended vacation" from him, the 85 year old Jessica who is Robert's"boss" at Highgate - not that they are paid anyway - and her 94 year old husband James, a stray kitten, the ghost of Elspeth and some twists and turns that will pull the rug from under your expectation and you get an inkling of what the novel is about.

For me the strongest points of the novel were:

1: The cast of characters: Julia, Valentina, Robert, Martin and Elspeth and her ghost are absolutely memorable and they stayed with me for a long time. The moody Robert and the lovable but strange Martin bring a good "masculine" balance to the exuberance and willfulness of Julia and dreaminess of Valentina and all four became great favorites, while Elspeth and her slowly revealed secrets add the needed narrative tension.

2: The Highgate Cemetery and its environs are pitch perfect described and while I have not visited London yet, I could imagine that particularly area so well from this book that it is clear the author has a shine to it.

3: The style of the book which is beautiful, clear and keeps you turning page after page as you can check from the excerpts - text and audio - linked above, while the twists and turns of the novel kept me on the edge of the seat till the end.

If there is one negative about "Her Fearful Symmetry" is that it ended since I would have loved another 100 pages of it for sure, though at 400 pages and with several Highgate images scattered through it, the novel has enough "heft" to be satisfying. But I wanted more since the characters really grew on me!! The ending ties in most of the story threads, though it leaves enough "open-endness" to allow our imagination to roam with our characters. Overall the one short description would be "very entertaining novel".


Jessica ( frellathon ) said...

I am so looking forward to this book. I have it requested from my library and can't wait to read it.

Liviu said...

I am very curious how this book will be received - it is guaranteed a bestselling spot on the NYT list but for how long?

I loved it but it's different than TTW, darker, more spread out in space, less spread out in time...


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