Book review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

The book:

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Published by Vintage in 2010
Pages: 496

My copy: Second-hand copy

51y9JBvGyZL._AC_US160_The blurb:

When Elspeth Noblin dies she leaves her beautiful flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina Poole, on the condition that their mother is never allowed to cross the threshold. But until the solicitor’s letter falls through the door of their suburban American home, either Julia nor Valentina knew their aunt existed. The twins hope that in London their own, separate, lives can finally begin but they have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them and works in the cemetery itself.

My thoughts…

It really is hard to know where to start with this novel, which was utterly weird, pretty stupid in places – yet very readable! Despite being nearly 500 pages, I found myself whizzing through it, although by the time I got to the end I was quite gobsmacked by the direction this book had been taken in.

The premise is intriguing – 44-year-old Elspeth dies, bequeathing her entire estate to her American twin nieces who she met only once when they were babies. Elspeth’s twin sister – the twins’ mother – is forbidden from entering the flat, and we also find out early on that the two sisters didn’t speak for 20 years.

The characters in this book are really interesting, not least the two American twins Julia and Valentina. They are strange and inseparable, but the cracks in their relationship start to show once they move to the London flat they have inherited. I also loved Martin, the obsessive compulsive crossword compiler who lives upstairs from the twins. He has many extreme rituals he goes through before he can do anything, and he hasn’t left the house in over a year – causing his wife to leave him – but I like the way the author still manages to portray him as a funny, interesting character – there is much more to him than his OCD, although this still dictates his life in many ways. Downstairs neighbour Richard I didn’t take to as much, and his relationship with one of the twins never quite convinced me. 

I did think the story was going to revolve around the mystery of why the older twins didn’t speak with each other, but although this is mentioned at intervals in the novel, it isn’t actually as crucial as I had at first assumed it would be. And when the ‘twist’ is finally revealed, it doesn’t have any relevance or bearing on the plot that I can fathom. It is also at this point that the story in general gets totally bonkers – and also pretty unbelievable. In fact the more the book progresses, the more implausible it becomes – and by the end things have got totally bizarre. The ghostly elements, that start off very subtly, get more and more strange, and by the end the story got so far-fetched that I just didn’t know what to make of it! 

I neither loved nor hated this book. It is very well written and I found it an easy read, and I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen, but I was never quite sure of the focus of the story. I actually would have liked it to have been more about the twins and their relationship, and how this maybe contrasted with and mirrored that of their mother and aunt. Although I really liked Martin, I wasn’t sure that he added much to the story, and Richard just made me feel thoroughly uncomfortable throughout! The ghost story element got truly ludicrous towards the end – and although I quite liked the abrupt ending, which worked for me on some level, what had gone before had already spoiled what could have been an interesting read. 

My rating: 6 out of 10

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