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Elspeth and Edwina were identical twins, estranged for many years. When Elspeth dies in London, she leaves her flat to her sister's, nieces - Julia and Veronica - who are also identical twins. However, there is a condition. The two girls must leave the USA and their mother behind, and in the flat for a year. After that, they can do what they want with it. The girls decide to take up the challenge - since seriously, how horrid could a rent-free year in London be? Especially if what they've inherited is a bright and sunny flat, situated near Highgate Cemetery. But, soon after they arrive, they begin to meet some unusual neighbors and then some strange things start to happen. This is Audrey Niffenegger's "Her Fearful Symmetry."
After "The Time Traveler's Wife" was such a huge best-seller, everyone anxiously awaited Audrey Niffenegger's second novel. This came with this semi-ghost story "Her Fearful Symmetry." That it was a ghost story was no surprise. Her debut novel was clearly in the realm of magical realism - making something that is improbable (if not impossible) and making it sound possible. With her first novel, the conceit was getting her readers to believe a genetic anomaly could cause someone to time travel. And so we did. With her second outing, the magical bit of her realism has been substituted with the supernatural. This makes the conceit all the more tangible. Time travel is almost science fiction. Ghosts are in that gray area that lies somewhere between fantasy and belief. This is especially true when they are removed from the realm of religion. This is exactly what Niffenegger does here - by using the afterlife as a literary mechanism. This is also what makes her second book both problematic and fascinating - by taking extraordinary situations and inserting them into the lives of ordinary people.
Obviously, the fascinating part is investigating if ghosts really do exist, and if they can communicate with living beings. She also gets into the questions of the affects of mourning, and how the loss of someone sometimes makes us desire to still connect with someone who is dead. This is plausible. But Niffenegger goes further by investigating if spirits have some control on the living, taking it so far as to imply that, with the proper circumstances, ghosts might even be able to devise a way to be reincarnated. And here is where the problematic part of the story comes in. The question is, how much more - or less acceptable is this than the idea that a stray gene can force you to become a time traveler?
The best answer to that is to advise readers to suspend normal logic as they read. If they can do this, they'll find a complex character study, which examines how our relationships are affected by our actions. Moreover, there is the fascinating side of how raw love, in its many different states, becomes that which keeps us among the living, even after death. Niffenegger's story then becomes one that, despite the frightening aspects is also extremely touching. This is what draws the reader in, and makes it an addictive read.
The only drawback to "Her Fearful Symmetry" is an ending that feels banal compared to the rest of the work. Even so, Niffenegger doesn't let it become corny and allows some questions to remain unanswered, with the ultimate fates of these characters left to the imagination of the readers. All told, despite some flaws, this deserves a strong four stars out of five, and good enough to make me anxious to read her next novel.
(Audrey Niffenegger's third novel, "Raven Girl," was published on May 7, 2013)
Her Fearful Symmetry is the "difficult second album" from Audrey Niffenegger. After the phenomenal worldwide success of The Time Traveller's Wife, expectations were sky high and inevitably some people were disappointed. This has been reflected in reviews both at the time and since. Some people love it; others find it deeply disappointing.
Her Fearful Symmetry muses on the issues of death and duality. When Elspeth dies in London, she leaves her flat and all her money to the twins of her own, estranged twin sister. The will stipulates that the twins must live there for at least 12 months and their parents cannot enter the flat. Meanwhile, Elspeth is still living in her flat as a ghost, desperate to communicate with the twins and former lover Robert, who lives downstairs.
Much of the book is shrouded in mystery, raising more questions than it answers for a long time. Why were Elspeth and her twin sister estranged? What happened to drive them apart for ever when they had once been so close? Is Elspeth seeking revenge vicariously through her sister's daughters or is she seeking to help them? Along the way, it muses on cheery subjects such as the nature of death and the afterlife, the joy and despair of close family ties and the joy and pain of love.
If you look at Her Fearful Symmetry logically, it's fair to say that nothing much really happens. To say that it has a gentle pace is something of an understatement and I suspect that this is a source of frustration behind many of the negative reviews. I got to around page 120 and realised so far nothing had happened beyond the fact that Elspeth had died and the twins had moved to London.
On the face of it, this should be really boring stuff. How can you write so much around so little? Well, if I knew the answer to that one, I would also be a multi-million best-selling author. The simple fact is that Niffenegger is a wonderful observer of human nature. The characters she creates are fascinating; they feel like real people in a way that characters in novels rarely do. At times, you feel like a voyeur, spying on the lives of these people without them knowing you are there. Niffenegger creates characters which fascinate. Even though nothing much happens, you become engrossed in what they are doing and saying.
She also (as in The Time Traveller's Wife) has a knack for blending the fantastical with the mundane. Because characters are well written and the settings believable, you never question the more outlandish elements of the plot; they just seem right for this book. Niffenegger creates a setting which is both commonplace to our everyday experiences (and so instantly recognisable) and a little skewed (and so interesting).
It's probably fair to say that the central plot is not that complex. From a fairly early stage I had a reasonable idea of where I thought this one was heading and I was more or less correct. For once, though, this doesn't matter. If you accept the slow pace of the narrative and the welcome focus on characters, you will see this mild predictability as a benefit, rather than a hindrance. The plot is interesting, but it is there to serve the characters, not the other way around. The fact that it is straightforward means that you don't have to concentrate on it too hard, but can enjoy prying into the private lives of the oddball individuals who inhabit this corner of London.
Some themes do appear a little undeveloped. The relevance of some become clear as the book progresses, but there were a few which I thought either never got the attention they deserved or which didn't quite came together with the rest of the main plot. Threads are left dangling or ignored for long periods of time before being picked up again and this was slightly frustrating.
Perhaps the most disappointing element is the ending. After almost 300 pages of surprisingly engaging (non-)events, it rather fizzles out. As with so much modern literature, Nieffenegger relies on multiple endings to tie up all the loose ends and close off character arcs. Whilst there is nothing particularly wrong with this, her decision to provide something approaching a happy ending is a mistake in my view and the more upbeat ending jars with the gloomier tone of the rest of the book.
Priced at around£5 to buy new (paperback or Kindle) this can be picked up a lot cheaper in second hand shops. Personally, whilst you're always best paying as little as you can for a book, I would say that £5 is a fair price. It's a book I enjoyed and one I can see myself reading again.
As a modern twist on the ghost story and an in-depth look at the lives of a group of slightly dysfunctional people Her Fearful Symmetry makes for an interesting read. It might not be quite as deep or clever as it sometimes likes to think it is, but it is nevertheless a fascinating book. Be warned, though: it is very much a Marmite book. For every positive review like this one, you will find at least one person that hated it.
Her Fearful Symmetry
Vintage, Reprint edition, 2010
© Copyright SWSt 2013
Having been bowled over by and fallen in love time & time again with The Time Traveller's Wife, I was more than eager to read Audrey Niffenegger's 2nd novel 'Her Fearful Symmetry'. However, like many other people, I found it be a little lacking in a certain 'something' . . .
I knew Audrey Niffenegger was a little 'left of field' from her books published prior to The Time Traveller's Wife, so wasn't suddenly expecting some 'middle of the road' formulaic read, but this was slightly disappointing and bland.
Don't get me wrong, it wasn't an awful read and I would recommend it, but it didn't set my imagination on fire and was not a 'page turner' to me. The modern ghost story element was novel, but there was very little substance to the characters and the pace of the story was a bit slow and ploddy. I kept reading expecting something exciting or vibrant to happen and it never really did.
There were sensitive and caring human elements to the story - like Martin and Marjike's relationship - but overall it was all just a little flat and grey.
I don't want to write the whole plot line for you as I think that would spoil the book! But the general gist is: 2 sets of twins, mother and daughter generations, one of the elder twins dies and leaves her estate to the younger twins. The twins move into the flat, befriend/fall in love with the male neighbours and get haunted by the dead twin. Younger twins, go through issues of becoming individuals and end up becoming very different through their experiences. Then 1 younger twin dies . . . . I don't want to tell you the ending as it's probably the best part of the book, so will leave it there!!
I am myself a twin, so could relate to alot of the 'twin dynamics' which was personally entertaining.
I feel this may come across as a harsh review and it's not intended as such. I just found Her Fearful Symmetry disappointing following the genius of The Time Traveller's Wife - although it is still worth a read.
'Her Fearful Symmetry' is a novel about love and separation; superficially a book about twins who move to London after the death of their aunt, their story encompasses a whole range of unique and fascinating characters, all of whose lives are intertwined by one central woman ... who just happens to be a ghost.
The novel begins with an ending; the death of Elspeth Noblin, a strong and academic woman who has led a full and satisfying life, but feels that at 44, she has a lot more yet to discover. However, this ending is really only a beginning as the repercussions of Elspeth's death play out. The terms of her will bequeaths her flat and all its contents to the twin daughters of her estranged sister Edie. Her nieces Valentina and Julia have led a fairly aimless life in America with their parents; choosing not to continue their education or find a job. The astonishing contents of the will bring both of them to London, to live in Vautravers Mews; the flat that used to belong to the intense and vibrant Elspeth. In the flat beneath them lives Elspeth's lover Robert; another academic who loves his flat just as much for it's closeness to Highgate Cemetery as for its memories of his recently departed love. In the flat above them lives Martin, a man suffering so badly from a combination of agoraphobia and OCD that his devoted wife Marijike has been driven to leave him alone with his problems and stranded in a flat that he is unable to leave.
The lives of the inhabitants of Vautravers Mews develop as they each start to form relationships with each other, and some of them slowly come to realise that Elspeth, although dead, has never really left her beloved flat. As with all good novels, there are secrets that gradually unfold and a dénouement that is shocking but at the same time expected as the novel changes from a light hearted ghost story into something altogether darker with strong shades of the gothic horror of Frankenstein.
Audrey Niffeneger has set her novel in one of the most historic and atmospheric parts of London; Highgate, where the lives of all the protagonists are played out evocatively against the background of historic Highgate Cemetery which adjoins the block of flats where they all live. Her affectionate description of the Cemetery and her descriptions of London through the eyes of the nineteen year old twins who are seeing it for the first time is a real strength of the book. Her images are detailed and evocative and her research was thorough as she worked for a year as a guide in Highgate Cemetery. For me one of the greatest attractions of the book was the clear affection that Niffenegger has for the cemetery. It is years since I have visited, but when I lived in London I loved the pretentious Victorian tombs, the atmospheric ivy covered paths and the grandeur of the trappings of Victorian death. This book brought back all of the magic of the place, with the added charm of a secret doorway that led from the back garden of the main protagonists directly into the cemetery. The only way in through this door was via a special key which only certain people were allowed to own, and this extra detail brought home all the magic of books that I loved as a child such as the Secret Garden.
Niffeneger's research in other areas is equally detailed and believable. She manages to describe the extraordinary private lives of the inhabitants of Vautravers Mews with great realism. The descriptions of the trial that is Martin's daily life living with a severe mental illness are very well drawn, as is the difficulty of his wife Marijike in living with such a distressing condition in her partner. Niffeneger's talent lies in her ability to give the reader an insight into each character through an inner monologue, and she presents some often difficult situations through the veil of her character's deepest thoughts. I found the style of writing very engaging and I was completely engrossed in the narrative despite fact that some of the central characters are not very likable at all.
Some weak areas of the book grated a little with me, as an English reader, although I realise that the American audience will have seen them as quirky insights into English life. Jarring and incorrect colloquialisms such as, "I'll be with you in a jim-jam" brought home to me that this is an American author writing about London life through rose coloured lenses, but this did not detract from the story too much.
At the end of the day I found this novel a riveting read; a mystery; a horror story; a detailed examination of the lives of unusual people, all drawn together by love and death. It was addictive and easy reading and ultimately a book that I would recommend.
Audrey Niffenegger is an American born in 1963. She is a writer, artist and academic and this is her second novel. Her first, highly successful novel was The Time Traveler's Wife, which was recently made into a film starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.
Her Fearful Symmetry was published by Jonathan Cape, in2009. 485 pages, ISBN 9780099534175
One of my friends recommended this book a few months ago, and for some reason I never manage to snag it from her to read until a few weeks ago. At the time I was still reading another book, so left it on the side to be read eventually - then when I stopped going to university in the mornings I neglected my reading. That was until I kept looking at this one and thought I really have to read it just to see what all the fuss was about, especially as it came very highly recommended. In the end purely because I know how tatty my books end up being, I actually bought it used from Amazon, for very little money. Just so I knew if it got covered in coffee or whatever ends up in my bag, I wouldn't have to feel guilty ruining a friends copy. So about a week or so ago, I sat down with a big mug of tea, some biscuits and a deep breath and started out on what ended up being a three hour reading session, of what was about to become my new obsession.
~*~ Who Is Audrey Niffenegger? ~*~
Audrey Niffenegger is a writer and all round academic from the United States in her late forties. If you have heard of the film 'The Time Traveller's Wife,' then you will have seen or read, this authors first book - I'm quite surprised actually that given the films popularity, that this book isn't more popular. Anyway I digress, Niffenegger, is currently in the process of writing a new book that has a strange idea behind it but I'm not going to reveal it - if you want to know then you need to go have a look for yourselves! While Niffenegger was researching this book, she worked as a tour guide in Highgate Cemetery - which has given her a fairly good idea about who and what is buried in there... Audrey has her fingers in many pies, from novels, to short stories, and visual books - currently seen in 'The Guardian' according to Wikipedia (but I don't believe everything I read from there!) Niffenegger, is also a Professor at the 'Columbia College Chicago Centre for Book and Paper arts,' I somehow think she knows what she is on about when she is teaching, if this book is anything to go by.
~*~ So, What is 'Her Fearful Symmetry?' ~*~
This book is Audrey Niffenegger's second full length novel, published to the world back on October 1st 2009, Which is less than two years ago, no idea how the book passed me by at all but never mind. It is suggested that the books title is inspired by a line in a poem by William Blake that ends 'Could frame thy fearful symmetry?' It sounds somewhat dream inspired, but it is one of those titles that without you even needing to read the book sounds a bit weird and worth at least trying to get through it. It is rumoured that this novel was so highly sought after that it became a book that was auctioned off to a bookmakers for around a five million dollar advance. That is one hell of an advance for a book that may not have been as good as her previous offering....
~*~ Brief Plot ~*~
The book follows the story, of Elspeth the aunt of a set of twins in the states - so when she passes away and leaves her flat and money to her nieces, it brings old stories to light. Deceptions that have passed through decades, secrets that only now begin to rear their ugly heads, that threaten to throw the whole family into turmoil if the truth ever came out. Never mind the supernatural secrets hiding the Elspeth's flat that the twins now reside in, this book is full of twists and turns that would make the most sane person question their judgements....
~*~ Characters ~*~
Elspeth - Auntie to Julia and Valentina, Roberts partner and a relatively well-off lady, although incredibly manipulative.
Edie - Mum to Julia and Valentina, also Elspeth's twin - who it is suggested hasn't spoken to her sister for a considerable amount of time.
Robert - Elspeth's partner, who works at Highgate Cemetery and is working on a thesis on its history - while working as a tour guide for the cemetery.
Martin and Marijke - The couple that live above Elspeth, and later the twins - an odd couple, one with OCD and Marijke a calm chilled out wife.
Julia and Valentina - Edie's twin daughters, who take over the flat and essentially, begin afresh in London after their aunt's death despite never meeting her...
~*~ So, Is it any good? ~*~
In a simple three letter word - Yes! The plot right from the start had me hooked, initially I had no idea why, but there is just something that is buried deep below the surface of what is written and described to the reader - but it's one of those things that you can't put your finger on until you know what it is. As it is really hard to work out what might happen, because the author really doesn't give anything away until she really has to. The pace though I will say sometimes runs away with itself, passes time without a bit of a care to be honest, but at the same time with that it does make you consider what has happened in between times so I can't complain too much. I've recently passed this book on to my Mum, and she said the exact same thing about the plot to start with. In a way I guess it is a good thing because it gives you reason to keep on reading - purely through curiosity. As the plot thickens, it winds you into the story, because it has a deal of the supernatural in it, it gets you to think about what is going on underneath the surface of the book.
The characters, well they all start out on a pretty even keel to be honest, there are plenty of features about each character to get your head around. Initially it focuses on just Elspeth and Robert, to make sure you get to know them but it does slowly introduce neighbours, work friends and slowly but surely relatives from thousands of miles away. When the twins were first written into the book, I took an instant dislike to them - there was just something about the way in which their characters were written that annoyed me so much. The concept behind their characters interested me, from a medical point of view, but not so much the fact that they sounded like typical annoying American teenagers - a stereotypical idea I'm sure but it fitted my mood at the time. At first the lack of character involvement bugged me a great deal, now I understand why the author did this - because there is so much background you have to read their lives and consider what the background may be, as confusing as that might sound.
Ok so the one thing that grabbed me into this book, as you will have guessed is the actual story within it - always a bonus eh! Some books you read the synopsis and think oh well not sure if it's going to be any good, but just from reading the back of this one I knew I wanted to read it. The one thing I wasn't quite prepared for was the actual level of supernatural that is in the book, as it suggests it by saying that Elspeth can't seem to leave the flat - but I never expected the ghostly goings on. At points the story does turn into something you expect to see in an American thriller movie, well at the points you expect things to turn grisly - they don't, unfortunately! I will tell you though there are a few moments that get the heart racing, it's almost as if the author fancies teasing you with a hint of sexuality but can't quite make herself write in that way, which in a way is a little bit disappointing... Or does that just suggest I have a filthy mind, I'm not sure but I'm sure a member or two will have an opinion on that....
The way in which the book is written, is not over complicated - and anything that is not common place in the lives of the rest of us is explained in normal English so you need not worry about not knowing what the author is babbling on about. I'm not sure if I got more annoyed with the fact that everything changed fonts every time they were communicating with Elspeth, or the quick change to conversations and moments in other character's lives. Just means you need to remember which character is which, which random problem is affecting them this chapter. It is one of those stories that you need to pay attention to, because if you dip in and out of the plot, you will miss vital things that are contributing to the actual story. Especially as you get closer to the end, it gets more essential that you pay attention to what is going on - because I have to say I did lose track of something that later became quite important.
This book is a mixture of quite long chapters that begin to explain what is going on, and small chapters that have very little to do with the story. It sounds a little bit pointless but I have to say it is better than it sounds. Now I never read 'The Time Travellers Wife' purely because I didn't like the idea of the plot, so I have no idea how it compares to that but as a book you can just pick up it is more than acceptable! It's a hard book to begin to explain to someone without spoiling the story - but if you like a bit of the supernatural, and fancy having something to think about; whether it be the ghostly side, or just the pure idea of what happens in the book - and just how much you want to believe and think is right due to what actually occurs. It definitely leads you to wonder what on earth was going on the authors mind when she was writing it, because she adds such a random twist to the end, that I would have never expected to happen, but when it does happen - I wasn't too suprised since the story was open to anything odd considering the way she has written her characters. I would be happy to overlook the slightly disappointing ending because the rest of the book more than made up for it. Even though it made it work out so that the author could write another book if she really wanted to, I'd hope she didn't purely because I think it would ruin things if she did!
~*~ Where Can I Find It? ~*~
Check out your local library, book store or eBay - or so what I did and buy it from Amazon used, and got it so much cheaper especially as it was a hard back!
Audrey Niffenegger is the author of the International Best Seller, The Time Travellers Wife. Her Fearful Symmetry is her second novel which was published in 2009. If you have read The Time Travellers Wife or watched the film, you will be accustomed to the odd theme of Niffenegger's work, and this novel is no different.
Set in and around Highgate Cemetery, London, this is a ghost story with a whole new take on the afterlife.
Elspeth Noblin is introduced at the beginning of the book as a forty something women who is dying, she leaves her partner behind offering him her paperwork, whilst her will requests her nieces from America move into her apartment. Elspeth has a twin who has secretly been contacting her sister over the years. Despite this connection the apartment is left to her twin nieces on the grounds that their parents never step foot in it.
Elspeth is present throughout the whole novel, in the unique form of a ghost trapped in her flat, which in turn influences the whole lifestyle of her nieces and her partner Robert.
Julia and Valentina Poole step foot in London and find a whole new world, one they have shied away from in the States. Their new found independence is an experience in itself and one which eventually sees the twins leading different lifestyles as the novel progresses.
Robert Fanshaw, who loved Elspeth but never lived with her, is the man downstairs. Asked to protect and care of the twins in Elspeth's absence, who despite these dying wishes, steers clear through fear of the twins connection and their resemblance to their aunt. He is the main support for Martin, the man upstairs.
Martin owns his apartment with his wife Marijke, who leaves him early on in the novel. Martin suffers with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to such extremes that the whole flat is boxed and bagged up, the floor is immaculate and scrubbed, gloves are worn and numbers are counted but no medication is taken.
Marijke moves to Amsterdam to begin a life without numbers, boxes, cleaning agents etc, but devastated to have left her husband behind, who cannot leave the house through fear of what might happen.
As Julia and Valentina settling into life in London and embrace the traditions of the English, the learn of the mysteries that Highgate Cemetery has to offer. Valentina, the more vulnerable of the two begins to believe in the afterlife and the guidance Elspeth has to offer. In doing so she becomes close to Robert and the two embark on an emotionally charged relationship which leaves Elspeth raging with jealously.
Julia however, the twin who is far less inclined to believe, takes a different route and takes it upon herself to firstly learn the whole of London and secondly to ensure Martin gets better. Eventually the twins begin to see things from the same point of view, but only once extraordinary events have occurred.
I won't spoil the plot or what it has to offer in terms of twist and turns, but I hope an introduction to the key characters is a start. There is of course as with all novels several fringe characters who assist in the fluidity of the novel, but bear little on the storyline.
Her Fearful Symmetry starts off by being a little weird and a little slow. However once the introductions have been made and the scene set it rapidly picks up speed and is one novel I struggled to put down, I even took it to work.
Niffenegger writes about very interesting characters and her style of writing, though first appearing quite heavy, is easy to read and compelling. Both the characters and the plot have depth and the ending could never have been guessed. The novel itself covers death, love, passion, the afterlife, pregnancy, hate, illness and family problems. With so many themes it is hard to believe they are all presented well. But this is indeed the case.
I would recommend this novel 100% and apologise for the cryptic review. Anything else would have spoilt the readers enjoyment.
This is a review of the book 'Her fearful symmetry' by Audrey Nifenegger. I had enjoyed her previous novel 'the time traveller's wife' so was really looking forward to reading this book.
A bit about the story...
The back cover described the book as a ghost story, so I was ready for a thrilling read. The book's theme is twins, with two sets of twins having a family connection. The younger generation twins Julia and Valentina are left a house in a will by their aunt in London on the condition that they live in it for a year so they travel from America to live there.
In the book, the characters mainly centre around the people who live in the flats in a house next to Highgate cemetery (where their aunt is buried). The book features two 'father figure' men in the flats above Julia and Valentina whom the girls turn to for help and love with varying success! A few fringe characters include some of the 'friends of Highgate Cemetery'.
I loved the twists Audrey Niffenegger puts in her books and this one is no disappointment on that front. I guessed one of the outcomes but having said that, I was reading it and looking for the twist in the tale.
I hated when the kitten was killed in the book. I realise it was necessary to demonstrate how dangerous the concept of passing between this world and the next is, but cats and kittens are my weakness so I really didn't want any harm to come to that white kitten.
I found it took me to page 50 before I really felt 'into' this book. I found the names a little confusing and the twins hard to place in my head for a while but their personalities are so different you kind of get there in the end.
A challenging read?
The book would not suit everyone and takes a bit of determination to get through. I often complain on here that books are not challenging enough for me but I wouldn't say that about this one.
A unique storyline
I think the thing that this author does is pick subjects that are difficult to write about yet somehow she pulls off concepts that you wouldn't believe in real life if it happened to you. The writing is so convincing that you find yourself going along with it and this is a really skilled writer to achieve that.
A bit morbid?
As a lot of the storyline is about death, ghosts, burials and graveyards you could say it is a little morbid. It's certainly not one to cheer yourself up with and will make you feel uncomfortable in parts. However, the author's certainly done her research and acknowledges the help she's had in researching the cemetery and even working there whilst she was writing the book. This really makes the book more realistic and it shows how dedicated the author is in getting a good understanding of the subject she is writing about.
I really liked this book, and it's hard not to compare it to the time traveller's wife but I won't do it because they are different stories and concepts and I think on reflection this one really does grow on you, again, it would make a great film so I'm awarding it full marks.
This is a ghost story about 2 twins. Julia and Velentina that live in America with their parents and have had little contact with their Aunt (Elspeth) in London. When their Aunt dies, she leaves them her flat in Highgate, beside the cemetery, but their parents are unable to visit the flat.
Elspeth becomes a ghost trapped in her flat. She tries to communicate with the girls and her boyfriend, Robert, who lives under the flat.
I picked up this book after enjoying Time Travellers Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. I enjoyed the book, but enjoyed 'The Time Travellers wife' more. I would be interested in reading her other books that she has written. The 2 books that I have read are both about death / spirits and have both sad storylines.
The book is a fascinating read about the relationship that the girls have with each other, and then with Robert and Martin (a reclusive man that lives in the flat above). The book was a bit slow to begin with and I struggled to get myself into the story. It picked up in the middle and I could not put it down by the end. I was in suspense about the ending, but was disappointed with how it ended.
I enjoyed the development of the characters and the way they learnt about each other and the relationship between the girls changed and the relationship between the girls and the neighbours developed from nothing.
I did not like the ending and thought that the ending could have been better. I was disappointed with the ending, but I will not ruin the storyline for others that want to read the book.
Reading previous reviews of this book it seems that this is not everyones cup of tea, and I can see why that is but personally I rather enjoyed it. Niffenegger has given us another well written, quirky book that approaches ideas from a different angle. This results in a compelling read that is enjoyable in its own way.
Unlike in 'The Time Travelers Wife', the characters are not particularly likable but they ARE interesting. It tells the story of twins who are left a flat in London by an aunt who they've never met. Once there they meet their deceased aunt's lover (Robert) and other strange characters whilst embarking on their first adventure away from home. And of course in true Niffenegger style they are haunted by their aunt. The story is more than anything an observation on changes in relationships - between the twins and also their mother and aunt as well as the relationships between Robert and the aunt and how this changes on death. Niffenegger has a style of writing that somehow makes the most unrealistic story line seem plausible and this is something I thoroughly enjoy. You can suspend disbelief and immerse yourself a different world.
Having said all of this, I think anyone who expects to read this and enjoy it as much as 'The Time Traveler's Wife' will be disappointed. It is a great book - compelling, thought provoking and an intriguing observation of an interesting set of characters but one can't help but feel that something is lacking. I won't spoil the book, but let's just say a major event occurs that has tragic consequences and you are kind of left thinking 'was that necessary? Why did that have to happen?' (You will understand what I mean when you read it!) It feels like Niffenegger was clutching at straws for reasons for a plot line and it leaves a lot to be desired.
In short, this is an enjoyable book in its own right, but you won't be able to help but compare this to the best selling 'The Time Travelers Wife' and in doing so, will be disappointed.
Following up from the smash success of "The Time Travellers Wife", Audrey Niffenegger has come back with an equally different story of mirror image twins Julia and Valentina who move from their normal life in the US to live in London, the ghost of their aunt Elspeth who is trapped in her flat and a man who cannot leave his home. Pretty kooky stuff - all of which is to be expected from a woman who created a hit from a time travelling man!
The story is this. Valentina and Julia receive a letter from their late Aunt Elspeth - their mothers twin who they didn't even know existed - to come and live in her flat in London for one year on the condition that they do not let their mother or her husband into the flat. Upon arriving at the flat, the twins sense a presence that is hard to shake and it turns out the Aunt Elspeth is hanging around still. In fact she is stuck in the flat unable to go anywhere and soon the girls are well aware of her presence and they as well as Elspeth's boyfriend start to communicate with her. Added to this, there is martin, a man living in the flat upstairs who suffers so badly from OCD that his wife has left him and he is unable to live his flat.
All of this sounds like it could be leading somewhere really interesting, after all, "The Time Travellers Wife" was something so unique and different that it caught the imagination of people world over despite, for me at least, being a bit hard to get my head around at first. As a result, I was willing to work at this book if it turned out like this.
So Valentina and Julia arrive in London to live in a flat left to them by a lady they have never met. It seems that Elspeth was suitably well off as the girls do not need to look for any work whilst they are there. At this point..I'm hoping that something might happen to make these girls more interesting or at least a little more likeable, because they literally come across as little girls with no imagination and no personality.
I don't always do this, but I read a review in the Guardian recently by journalist Sarah Churchwell that quite literally echoes my own thoughts on this story:
"Novels with unsympathetic characters need to offer the reader something else: a gripping plot, intellectual gravitas, stylistic delights, something to compensate for making you read 400 pages about people whom in real life you would cross the street to avoid."
The fact of the matter is, this story is literally a set of different ideas about a ghost, twin girls and a man with OCD tacked together to try and make a decent story. Niffenegger has admitted that this story literally started with a bunch of ideas. Unfortunately, these ideas did not go as seamlessly together as she may have hoped. Firstly, with the exception of Martin (the one with OCD) none of the characters in the story are at all likeable in any way. My opinion of the twins didn't change throughout the book and considering they are the main characters, it's hard to see why I carried on! Elspeth is interesting, but I didn't really get why she was stuck in that room haunting the girls and I also didn't get why her boyfriend had a fascination with Elspeth OR her niece Valentina. I thought they were all a little weird!
Martin, as I mentioned, was the only mildly interesting character out of the bunch. I found it fascinating to see how he lived his life, and I could well imagine that this fascination with cleaning and counting is in fact a true symptom of a real condition. But even then I was disappointed; it felt so easy and neat to see him get over his condition even if that was the only mildly satisfying part of the whole novel.
The truth of the matter is that Niffenegger was clearly going for another kooky book to replicate her previous success, but this time, the mis-match of elements were just too much. Some of her depictions of England and English-ness were way off the mark, the ghost part of the story was completely unrealistic to the point that I didn't even believe it in the realms of make believe. The ghost story literally included all the clichés you could get into one book, Ouija boards, shifting objects and floating mists. All the characters were unlikeable and at best, dull and uninteresting.
Even the writing style lacked any kind of energy. Yes, it was a dark book, but not in the way you expect from a modern ghost story. It was dull and if the book were to be a colour, it would be grey. It didn't have any kind of pace to it and it was bloody hard to pick back up and get into again once I'd put it down for the day. (frequently!) I guess everyone is wondering how I managed to get to the end of the book. Well, I guess to find out if there were some twists but even then it was the kind of twist that wasn't at all original and barely had me raising an eyebrow. It has taken me weeks on end to read this which is very unlike me. I think the main reason I persevered is because I was convinced there must've been something else I was missing. I'd read glowing reviews of this follow up saying how amazing it was, but quite frankly I wonder if these people are just dazzled because it was SUPPOSED to be amazing as its from an author who has had immense success before. Under the surface it is a really poor attempt. I'd imagine that if another, less known author had written it, it would never have had the press coverage it has now.
I think I've slated this enough! It was a bit like reading Sebold's "The Almost Moon" after reading her book "The Lovely Bones". A major disappointment from an author whom you know can do better. I'm not entirely sure I'd consider another book by this author - I'm starting to think she is a one hit wonder...
I read this book as I enjoyed 'The Time-Travellers' Wife' so much - and in many ways this book is very similar. Reviewed on the inside cover as "a ghostly love story and a lovely ghost story", this book is about more than just simple relationships between people - the ethereal relationships between the characters in the real world and the ghosts are simple, cute and believable.
It reminded me of 'The Lovely Bones', with a similar concept of partially recounting the tale from the ghosts' point of view. However, Nifferneger attacks the problem differently - she describes just enough of the ghosts to make them believable, and leaves the rest up to us. Hence she glosses over some of the more 'practical' issues of living with ghosts, and allows this already-realistic tale to delve into a fairy-tale without losing a sense of realism.
Rarely is Nifferneger described as a page-turner in the Dickensian sense of the word, and yet in this book she does not need to stoop to such simple cliff-hangers to keep us gripped - one major twist around three-quarters through the book is pretty much it. However, the plot itself is enough to make this book well worth a read - I couldn't put it down and sped through it in 3 days! I hope you enjoy it :)
ps - as a medical student i've just learnt about situs inversus - it's a real condition and everything she says about it is true!
Julia and Valentina are mirror image twins, a subtype of identical twins who have a special kind of symmetry. When they unexpectedly inherit the estate of their Aunt Elspeth, their mothers twin who they did not even realise existed, they move to London to start a new life. They live in Elspeth's flat and mingle with her old friends but even though Elspeth's body may be in the cemetery her soul is still present within the flat and she soon makes her presence felt to the twins. Why has Elspeth's existence been kept from the twins all these years and why has she decided to leave her estate to the twins and stipulated her own twin must never enter her flat?
The twins are catapulted from a very ordinary life in the USA to living the life of the wealthy in London. They make friends with the neighbours in their block of flats, Robert was their Aunt's lover and is researching the history of Highgrove Cemetery for his thesis while Martin writes crossword puzzles for a living and is housebound due to having OCD. The two men are enchanted by the pretty young twins and Julia is drawn to Robert while Valentina tries to cure Martin of his obsessions and fears and their lives become intertwined in a dangerous way.
Twins always hold a special kind of fascination, two people with identical bodies but distinct minds and they often have fraught relationships. One of the strongest aspects of the book was exploring the relationship between the twins. Julia appeared to be the stronger twin both physically and mentally with Valentina relying on her to take care of her yet Julia is also hopelessly reliant on her twin in a different way. The twins share everything, even a bed, yet as they enter adulthood they both long for separate existences yet are unable to separate. As they develop relationships with Martin and Robert this causes tensions and jealousies within their relationship. The twins also wonder how their mother and aunt could go from sharing the closeness of twins to having no contact for over twenty years, will history end up repeating itself?
It was the ghost story which was the most compelling part of the book. Niffenegger has created an imaginative and dark world filled with ghosts with remarkable properties. Setting the book partly in Highgrove cemetery really adds to the atmosphere of the book which is deliciously dark. This is no ordinary ghost story but is a book where the dead seem to be just as alive as the living. Who knows if Niffenegger's version of what happens to our souls once they leave our bodies is true or not but it will certainly make you think about death in a different light.
I am one of the few people who did not enjoy Audrey Niffenegger's most famous book The Time Travellers Wife because I just could not connect with the style of writing and I also initially found it difficult to get into Her Fearful Symmetry. I did find the pace of the book was very slow to start with but once the story started to take off then I couldn't put the book down until I had got to the end. There were a few niggles with the book, there were numerous references to modern life like Prêt sandwich shops which just seemed out of synch with the tone of the story but overall I found that the book was very skilfully written in a way that weaved together several stories in an engaging manner.
Her Fearful Symmetry is a thoroughly engaging read which explores the dynamics of twins and combines it with a hauntingly good ghost story. A brilliant book which will make you think about the things that bond us to one another and also what happens to our souls after death.
Being a good parent and knowing that The Time Traveller's Wife is my favourite ever book, my mam decided that Audrey Niffenegger's second novel would be a perfect present for me last Christmas. I was very grateful and very much looked forward to reading another book by the author who wrote such a masterpiece as TTW, I found myself putting off reading it months and months later. It wasn't that I didn't think that it would be good or that it was something that I just wasn't interested in reading; I was concerned that it would in no way be as good as the Time Traveller's Wife and thus not meet my very high expectations. Unfortunately, my worries were fairly justified.
In Her Fearful Symmetry the author seems to have carried on the almost supernatural theme of her bestseller, though again this book is not a science-fiction or fantasy book, but rather one in which otherworldly beings are not only possible but a major part of the plot. While the Time Traveller's Wife was a story about romantic and everlasting love, Her Fearful Symmetry is one more about family and the fear of leaving the comfortable cocoons that one builds for oneself.
The book starts with the sad and untimely death of forty-something year old Elspeth in the presence of her lover, Robert, in a hospital in London. In her will she stipulates that her flat be left to the twin daughters of Elspeth's own twin Edie, with whom she has been estranged for many years, and who live in the United States. Although 20 year old Valentina is unsure about uprooting her life in Chicago and moving across the Atlantic Ocean to live in their dead aunt's flat, her bossy double Julia decides that they are to go, and so go they shall. Back in London, Robert simultaneously mourns his lover and anxiously awaits the arrival of her nieces, while Elspeth's ghost hovers around her old home also waiting for the day that the American girls come to live there. As somewhat of a side-story, the only other occupant in their house made up of three flats, Martin, suffers from OCD so severe that he cannot leave his home and has his windows boarded up.
While I found that it took be a little while to get into this story, once I did get the feel for it I was hooked and couldn't put it down for hours at a time. I loved the relationship between the twins and how in many ways they acted in a similar way to two people in love (without anything which would count as incest, though, fortunately), and how Robert was so intimidated by them and their likeness to their aunt (due to her being genetically identical to their mother) when they first arrived. I found the fact that Julia was the bossy and dominant twin while Valentina was weaker both in confidence and in health (due to the fact that as Julia's mirror image twin she has reversed organs and all the medical complications associated with this condition), yet despite outward appearances it became fairly clear that Julia relied more on her close relationship with her sister then the other way round. I loved the descriptions of Elspeth's existence as a ghost and her frustration at not being able to interact with the small world around her, and the interesting consequences when she finally realises that she can have an effect on her environment in a way that the living cannot. I enjoyed the fact that the mysterious estrangement between twins Elspeth and Edie made the reader wonder if the same fate would befall the younger twins. I thought that many parts of this book were excellently written and that, as in The Time Traveller's Wife, the supernatural element was included in a very natural and believable way. I liked the subtle parallels between the twins' genetic relationship as mirror twins and many parts of their lives, as when Julia apparently seems to want to 'mirror' a relationship that Valentina has formed, and comparisons between them and the twins of the previous generation.
Despite all this, I have to say that I felt a bit let down by this book when I finished it. While the middle third of this book was engaging and filled with interesting character development, I found the ending of the book to be much weaker. I was frankly appalled by some of the decisions made by some of the characters as the book drew to a conclusion, and although every effort seems to have been made by the author to make it feel as though there was a natural progression towards the events in the latter part of the story, it felt a bit forced, in my opinion. Although my opinions about the characters changed quite a lot as the story progressed, I felt as though this was intended by the author to make the latter parts of the story seem more real, though I don't feel that it quite worked. The very ending in itself was quite sad yet very well written, and although I was fairly disappointed by it at the time, I actually feel more positively about it now on reflection.
Much reference is made throughout the novel to the historic Highgate Cemetery in London as it is situated next to the characters' flats and is where Robert works and Elspeth is buried. This cemetery is a real place, and a lot of the history told about the place and the information about famous people from British history buried here is apparently all factually correct. Audrey Niffenegger herself spent a lot of time researching for the book in this cemetery and at the very end has a plea for people to give donations to keep it open and maintained, but I found all of this to be fairly bizarre. I felt as though she put too much emphasis on the cemetery while reading the novel, and when I discovered that she has a personal interest in it staying open and being funded I felt as though she included the place in the book purely for this purpose. Looking back there was a lot of information about the people buried here and while at the time it just appeared that it was that way because Robert was so interested in it and because they all lived nearby, it seems now that the author placed too much emphasis on Highgate in order to make people want to donate and to preserve the place. While this isn't a bad cause to be involved in, I don't feel that its large inclusion in the novel really helps me to feel better disposed towards a book that I'm already in two minds about.
It seems that even after writing this review and thinking again about how much I truly enjoyed reading this book, I still can't quite decide what I should give it as a rating. If the whole novel had been as good as its mid-section then I would give it five stars quite easily, but if it had all been the same quality of its ending and less-absorbing beginning then I would only want to give it two or three stars. Since I enjoyed it less than the book I read before it (The Help) yet more than the book I am currently persevering through (Sweeping up Glass), a 4 star rating seems about fair. I would hope, however, that anyone interested on reading this book would pay more attention to what I have said about the book rather than just looking at the rating, anyway, so it's not massively important.
So, in conclusion, I did really enjoy the majority of this book and would recommend it, though The Time Traveller's Wife, it was not. Yes it was a good story and a lot of it was beautifully written, but there were a few things that let it down. Having said that, maybe Niffenegger purposefully made this book slightly disappointing as a metaphor to how it's difficult living in the shadow of such an insanely popular first book (or child), and how the second of the pair will always be unfavourably compared to the first?
On second thoughts, however, probably not.
***Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger***
The story starts out with death - the death of Elspeth who is an indentical twin. She has been estranged from her twin Evie for 21 years. Evie is married to Jack and lives in America with her own twin daughters Julia and Valentina. Upon Elspeth's death, her will leaves her house and the bulk of her estate to her twin nieces - with stipulations attached. The twins must live in the flat for one year together, before it can be sold. Their parents must not set foot in the flat either. Robert is the lover of Elspeth and lives in the flat above. He is the executor of the estate. There are three flats in the building and at the outset the third flat is occupied by Martin and his wife.
The book follows the progress of Julia and Valentina and also Elspeth as she comes to terms with being a ghost in her own flat (which she cannot leave). Robert is also a key figure and although Martin has problems of his own (won't spoil what these are) these are dealt with in an amusing manner, considering they are problems of a quite serious nature.
The flat overlooks Highgate Cemetery and it is here that Elspeth is buried. The book deals with subjects such as loss, identity and of course, ghosts - but in a highly original manner. The author Audrey Niffenegger actually came to live in London for a while and became a guide at Highgate in order to research her book.
I had read some reviews that were not too favourable regarding this book, but I decided at the outset to keep an open mind - after all it would be difficult to even match The Time Traveller's Wife, let alone surpass it. This is a totally different book, however the voice of the author still rings out and I immensely enjoy her turn or phrase and the imagery she uses for very difficult subjects.
A good start as any, is the fact that I could not put this book down - yes, it was different, but still an excellent story. The story is totally original and I did not have a clue where it would end, as the book twisted and turned and secrets were unlocked.
Valentina and Julia are introduced to us as quirky and almost inseparable. At once, you begin to feel for Valentina who Julia refers to as 'mouse' and dominates her in every way.
Elspeth's transformation into a ghost is treated with great care and if you were to believe in ghosts then I would imagine that this is how a ghost might be perceived. I particularly enjoyed a passage when the young girls are watching Dr Who and Elspeth is delighted; she questions whether it is wrong to fancy David Tennant when you are dead and this made me smile. If death is something you think about rarely then this book brings it to the forefront of your mind.
Robert's character was also dealt with sensitively as you see how he deals with loss and trying to carry on after Elspeth has gone.
The book was also successful in developing other characters such as Martin and his long suffering wife. Indeed, the original focus of the book for the author was Martin himself. She wanted to explore what it would be like to not be able to leave your apartment and have a young girl (Julia) attempt to coax him out. Although his condition was serious, some of the funnier moments of the book were describing him cope with his problem. It as only later on that Niffenegger decided to add the ghost element as a tool with which to draw the twins to London.
The real star of the book is HIghgate Cemetry itself and the author manages to make you believe that the characters actually live and work nearby. Her descriptions are vivid and there are also many interesting anecdotes about Victorian burial practices which are not for the squeamish. I must admit to doing a bit of research afterwards as she brought the place to life.
I kept trying to work out where the plot would finish up, but failed miserably and this is another reason I enjoyed the book as there are not many books that I read that are not predictable.
Like The Time Travellers Wife this is a book that requires concentration and I would especially say this as the book reaches the end and cases of mistaken identity involving the twins are discussed. This is the sort of book that you feel you would benefit from if you read it again, as you miss so many minor details and foreshadowing at the beginning.
There is something about her writing that has such flair and a great way of bringing characters to life - even if some of these ones were a little odd. I also think she did well setting the book in London, even though she is American - her attention to detail was fantastic.
I don't agree with many of the reviews downgrading this book, as it was simply different to TTW. The author is extremely talented and does not pander to the simplified happy ending formula. This is not to say that it is all bad news, but you feel that her characters reach a point that is right for them.
The twist alone was worth reading the book for me. I think this book took around 5 years to come to fruition and you can see in the writing that it isn't just thrown together.
The book is only available in hardback currrently and can be purchased from Amazon for £9.90. I was lucky enough to get mine from the library, but will probably get my own copy when the paperback is released in July.
This is the second novel from the popular author of "The Time Traveller's wife" - Audrey Niffenegger. I was eagerly awaiting this, I loved Time Traveller so much and the synopsis of this novel sounded equally intriguing. However, since her first novel was so popular I am not going to make comparisons and will judge this as a stand-alone novel.
The book is based on American twins Valentina and Julia; who are identical mirror twins. Their Aunt Elspeth, who they have never met, dies from leukaemia and leaves the twins her flat in London, money and belongings. They move to the flat in London as it stipulates in the will that the twins are not allowed to sell the flat until they have lived in the flat for at least a year. The novel is shrouded in mystery; the young twins do not know why Elspeth and their mother (also twins) have not spoken for many years.
Although the novel centres around the twins, when they move to London readers are also introduced to other important characters. Downstairs lives Robert, Elspeth's partner who is the key to them finding out was has happened in the past. Upstairs, lives Martin, who suffers from Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and struggles to leave his flat. His wife, who became increasingly frustrated by his illness, leaves him near the start of this novel and Martin is powerless to go to Amsterdam to find her.
The narrative changes throughout the novel so that the reader is able to see events through all of the different main characters eyes and is a technique I enjoyed. I felt engaged with all of the characters and felt empathy for most of them. Julia, the more confident of the twins is drawn towards helping Martin overcome his illness. Valentina was probably my favourite character, much more complex and introverted then Julia; she finds life as a twin difficult and craves a more independent life. I found this fascinating as the novel highlights both the positives and the downfalls of being a twin and I am sure people who are twins themselves will be able to relate to this.
The novel deals with OCD in a very sensitive manner and Martin is a likable character. You can't help but root for him in this novel, willing him to get better to enable him to save his marriage.
I felt slightly less sympathy with Robert. A more introverted character himself he begins a friendship with Valentina. Elspeth was older then him but I was slightly uncomfortable with this relationship since Valentina was his niece. However, this is a gripping part of the story.
This novel deals with many serious issues and themes. The complexities of families is explore and the various relationships within them. Death, loss and illness are also dealt with - but without being over sentimental. The setting is atmospheric; their flat is opposite Highgate cemetery, where Robert also works. The novel has echoes of the gothic era and reminded me of Henry James or Bronte at times.
She is an excellent writer. She knows how to draw the reader in and interest them throughout. I loved the mystery surrounding the past and the book has a few twists and turns along the way, which keep you guessing.
So I truly loved this book and I could not put this down. However I am going to give this four stars. There are two slight issues with this book. The first is that the end seems so rushed and in a way, I felt let down by the ending - I obviously won't give this away though! My other issue is that I feel some readers will find this implausible as this is also a ghost tale, indeed at times, Elspeth narratives this novel after she has died. I feel that you need to read this with an open mind and I didn't mind this angle but I am not sure it will suit all readers.
I wish this book was 50 pages longer, but that can't be a bad thing. If you like atmospheric page-turners then I would definitely recommend this. It is a beautifully written book and has a touch of magic in it, even if a bit dark!