BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryAudrey Niffenegger‘s second novel begins with “The End” – the title of the book’s opening chapter – and the words “Elspeth died …”

Like Niffenegger’s phenomenal debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Symmetry is driven by other-worldly love. Elspeth Noblin is one half of a pair of identical twins. She dies from leukemia in a London hospital, having been separated for the past 20 years from twin Edie whose life now is contained in an overdecorated suburban faux Tudor (!) home just outside Chicago. Inseparable until their transatlantic cleaving, Elspeth and Edie never stop longing for one another and yet truculently remain parted … until death. Elspeth’s body might have expired … but her story is just beginning.

After Edie married under seemingly unforgivable circumstances, she immigrated across the Pond, and raised the next generation of twins, Julia and Valentina. Elspeth’s final will lures the twins to London as sole benefactors of her spacious Highgate flat and the rest of her generous estate … with stipulations. Julia and Valentina must live in the flat for one year, during which time their parents Edie and Jack must never set foot within.

Elspeth’s flat is the middle floor of three floors that make up the “great dark bulk” of Vautravers; the building’s back garden shares a wall with London’s legendary Highgate Cemetery, the afterlife home of such luminaries as Karl Marx, the Rosettis, George Eliot … as well as the Noblin family vault where Elspeth’s shriveled body lies …

On the first floor lives Robert, Elspeth’s younger lover … who hasn’t been able to let Elspeth go. In the flat above is Martin, recently minus Marijke, who can no longer endure his OCD habits and finally leaves him but will not stop loving him. Valentina will go down to Robert, Julia will wander up to Martin … let the hauntings begin.

Chicago-based Niffenegger, who was a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery according to her bio at book’s end (Highgate tours are one of the very best highlights of London!), creates a highly complex, multilayered ghost story with the most unexpected twists. While you’ll certainly be thrillingly entertained, you’ll remain haunted long after you’ve finished the words on the page …

Elspeth dies at 44 – double death, as the number ‘4’ has the same pronunciation in many Asian languages as ‘death’; many older buildings don’t have a fourth floor. It’s also exactly half of 88, which again in Asian languages means the best fortune, luckiest number … do the math, so to speak. Half luck, half life, half twins …

And then the wordplay (neighbor Martin’s specialty) … How about the rest of that title line (from the famous poem, “The Tiger,” by William Blake – who is not buried at Highgate, by the way): “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” No spoiler answers here. And then there’s symmetry/cemetery … awfully close, no? Even Noblin, goblin … perfect for Halloween.

In spite of the high hair-raising spook factor, Symmetry is one fantastical … if you’ll allow me, frightfully clever (!) … adventure. Double double toil and trouble indeed. Shiver, shiver.

To read my interview with Niffenberger for, click here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009



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