Her Fearful Symmetry

Paperback | July 6, 2010

byAudrey Niffenegger

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Another brilliant, original and moving novel from the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers — normal, at least, for identical “mirror” twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cozy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her amazing flat in a building by Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin … but they have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the OCD-suffering crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the mother of the girls — her own twin — and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat….

From the Hardcover edition.

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From the Publisher

Another brilliant, original and moving novel from the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers — normal, at least, for identical “mirror” twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cozy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice...

AUDREY NIFFENEGGER is a visual artist and a guide at Highgate Cemetery. In addition to the bestselling novels The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, she is the author of three illustrated novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters,The Adventuress, and The Night Bookmobile, and the editor ofGhostly. She lives in Chicago and London...

other books by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife
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Format:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 1.1 inPublished:July 6, 2010Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307397467

ISBN - 13:9780307397461

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from story about estrangement, heartbreaking but a great read I borrowed this book from my work's office library, and now I have to buy it. I was absolutely enchanted. The story itself started off a bit dubious for me--I guess I expected more realism--but I fell in love with the characters for their individual flaws, quirks and perplexities; Niffenegger delivered just enough detail to draw me in while leaving truly unknowable conditions like motive and intention to the imagination. The relationships in the book were likewise revealed to be less than perfect. Despite being held together by mutual love and longing, the characters all seem to just miss out on their fairy tale endings. The exception is with one character who was established near the beginning to be perhaps most flawed of all. Trapped in his London flat for the majority of the story by a severe case of OCD, he alone is able to recognize and overcome his personal demons to reunite with his wife by the very end. Where the book fell short for me was in its bizarre sense of continuity; there were several places in the storyline where a jump was made and left unexplained, leaving the reader scrambling to fill it with bits of clues from the author. Not a deal breaker. However, Niffenegger's use of obvious symbols also seemed somewhat incongruous with the equivocal nature of the story. I can only think that it was necessary to balance the feelings raised in this book of simultaneously knowing yet not knowing what it was all about. Not a perfect book for me, but overall very good and worth re-reading.
Date published: 2014-06-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Unexpected I loved The Time Traveller's Wife and so was really excited for this to come out in paperback. I was disappointed as it was not nearly as good as Niffenegger's first book. It held my interest and I was curious to see how it would end but overall it was average.
Date published: 2012-01-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I really enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife but this book was very disappointing. As others have pointed out, the main characters were the least interesting in the novel and the plot left a lot to be desired. It was a struggle to finish and I would not recommend this book.
Date published: 2011-05-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mediocre, but enjoyable The main characters in this story are the least interesting of the whole book, while all the other people they encounter are the ones you truly want to know more about. This book has interesting ideas, and Niffenegger does bring me right to rainy London in my mind, but the ending leaves me wanting something more. The twist is very predictable and the entire tone is sort of melancholy.
Date published: 2010-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A diiferent kind of great story! It took me years to finally read Time Travellers Wife, and since I did it's one of my all time favorites. I disagree with other reviewers in that you cannot duplicate TTW. Her novel after that one should be different, and I expected something different. In Symmetry she captures the characters well, I feel I know them after a few chapters- this is a great talent for a writer. Her story is mind twisting, and truely original. It's not easy to have great original ideas for story lines, and to do it twice in a row, I find admirable. All this combined made me love this book. I immediately passed it on to friends who are finding it intensely engaging right off the bat. Do read it, and buy it!! I've been finished for a week now, yet I find my mind going back to the story and its characters often.
Date published: 2010-08-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not worth it! I agree Story was too long and didn't lead anywhere. I was more interested in the minor characters and felt that the twins where boring. A real let down after The Time Travellers Wife.
Date published: 2010-08-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not worth it! I HATED this book. I couldn't get it to the used book store fast enough. I was very disappointed after reading the Time Travellers Wife. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK! Or go buy mine from the used book store!
Date published: 2010-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Compelling This second novel was richly detailed and compelling. Niffenegger brings her characters to life as easily as her ghosts!
Date published: 2010-08-04

Extra Content

Read from the Book

The EndElspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head toward the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious.In the seconds before she died, Elspeth remembered a day last spring when she and Robert had walked along a muddy path by the Thames in Kew Gardens. There was a smell of rotted leaves; it had been raining. Robert said, "We should have had kids," and Elspeth replied, "Don't be silly, sweet." She said it out loud, in the hospital room, but Robert wasn't there to hear.Elspeth turned her face towards the door. She wanted to call out, Robert, but her throat was suddenly full. She felt as though her soul were attempting to climb out by way of her oesophagus. She tried to cough, to let it out, but she only gurgled. I'm drowning. Drowning in a bed … She felt intense pressure, and then she was floating; the pain was gone and she was looking down from the ceiling at her small wrecked body.Robert stood in the doorway. The tea was scalding his hand, and he set it down on the nightstand by the bed. Dawn had begun to change the shadows in the room from charcoal to an indeterminate grey; otherwise everything seemed as it had been. He shut the door.Robert took off his round wire-rimmed glasses and his shoes. He climbed into the bed, careful not to disturb Elspeth, and folded himself around her. For weeks she had burned with fever, but now her temperature was almost normal. He felt his skin warm slightly where it touched hers. She had passed into the realm of inanimate objects and was losing her own heat. Robert pressed his face into the back of Elspeth's neck and breathed deeply.Elspeth watched him from the ceiling. How familiar he was to her, and how strange he seemed. She saw, but could not feel, his long hands pressed into her waist - everything about him was elongated, his face all jaw and large upper lip; he had a slightly beakish nose and deep-set eyes; his brown hair spilled over her pillow. His skin was pallorous from being too long in the hospital light. He looked so desolate, thin and enormous, spooned around her tiny slack body; Elspeth thought of a photograph she had seen long ago in National Geographic, a mother clutching a child dead from starvation. Robert's white shirt was creased; there were holes in the big toes of his socks. All the regrets and guilts and longings of her life came over her. No, she thought. I won't go. But she was already gone, and in a moment she was elsewhere, scattered nothingness.The nurse found them half an hour later. She stood quietly, taking in the sight of the tall youngish man curled around the slight, dead, middle-aged woman. Then she went to fetch the orderlies.Outside, London was waking up. Robert lay with his eyes closed, listening to the traffic on the high street, footsteps in the corridor. He knew that soon he would have to open his eyes, let go of Elspeth's body, sit up, stand up, talk. Soon there would be the future, without Elspeth. He kept his eyes shut, breathed in her fading scent and waited. Last LetterThe letters arrived every two weeks. They did not come to the house. Every second Thursday, Edwina Noblin Poole drove six miles to the Highland Park Post Office, two towns away from her home in Lake Forest. She had a PO box there, a small one. There was never more than one letter in it.Usually she took the letter to Starbucks and read it while drinking a venti decaf soy latte. She sat in a corner with her back to the wall. Sometimes, if she was in a hurry, Edie read the letter in her car. After she read it she drove to the parking lot behind the hotdog stand on 2nd Street, parked next to the Dumpster and set the letter on fire. "Why do you have a cigarette lighter in your glove compartment?" her husband, Jack, asked her. "I'm bored with knitting. I've taken up arson," Edie had replied. He'd let it drop.Jack knew this much about the letters because he paid a detective to follow his wife. The detective had reported no meetings, phone calls or email; no suspicious activity at all, except the letters. The detective did not report that Edie had taken to staring at him as she burned the letters, then grinding the ashes into the pavement with her shoe. Once she'd given him the Nazi salute. He had begun to dread following her.There was something about Edwina Poole that disturbed the detective; she was not like his other subjects. Jack had emphasised that he was not gathering evidence for a divorce. "I just want to know what she does," he said. "Something is… different." Edie usually ignored the detective. She said nothing to Jack. She put up with it, knowing that the overweight, shiny-faced man had no way of finding her out.The last letter arrived at the beginning of December. Edie retrieved it from the post office and drove to the beach in Lake Forest. She parked in the spot farthest from the road. It was a windy, bitterly cold day. There was no snow on the sand. Lake Michigan was brown; little waves lapped the edges of the rocks. All the rocks had been carefully arranged to prevent erosion; the beach resembled a stage set. The parking lot was deserted except for Edie's Honda Accord. She kept the motor running. The detective hung back, then sighed and pulled into a spot at the opposite end of the parking lot.Edie glanced at him. Must I have an audience for this? She sat looking at the lake for a while. I could burn it without reading it. She thought about what her life might have been like if she had stayed in London; she could have let Jack go back to America without her. An intense longing for her twin overcame her, and she took the envelope out of her purse, slid her finger under the flap and unfolded the letter.Dearest e,I told you I would let you know - so here it is - goodbye.I try to imagine what it would feel like if it was you - but it's impossible to conjure the world without you, even though we've been apart so long.I didn't leave you anything. You got to live my life. That's enough. Instead I'm experimenting - I've left the whole lot to the twins. I hope they'll enjoy it.Don't worry, it will be okay.Say goodbye to Jack for me.Love, despite everything, eEdie sat with her head lowered, waiting for tears. None came, and she was grateful; she didn't want to cry in front of the detective. She checked the postmark. The letter had been mailed four days ago. She wondered who had posted it. A nurse, perhaps.She put the letter into her purse. There was no need to burn it now. She would keep it for a little while. Maybe she would just keep it. She pulled out of the parking lot. As she passed the detective, she gave him the finger.Driving the short distance from the beach to her house, Edie thought of her daughters. Disastrous scenarios flitted through Edie's mind. By the time she got home she was determined to stop her sister's estate from passing to Julia and Valentina.Jack came home from work and found Edie curled up on their bed with the lights off."What's wrong?" he asked."Elspeth died," she told him."How do you know?"She handed him the letter. He read it and felt nothing but relief. That's all, he thought. It was only Elspeth all along. He climbed onto his side of the bed and Edie rearranged herself around him. Jack said, "I'm sorry, baby," and then they said nothing. In the weeks and months to come, Jack would regret this; Edie would not talk about her twin, would not answer questions, would not speculate about what Elspeth might have bequeathed to their daughters, would not say how she felt or let him even mention Elspeth. Jack wondered, later, if Edie would have talked to him that afternoon, if he had asked her. If he'd told her what he knew, would she have shut him out? It hung between them, afterwards.But now they lay together on their bed. Edie put her head on Jack's chest and listened to his heart beating. "Don't worry, it will be okay." …I don't think I can do this. I thought I would see you again. Why didn't I go to you? Why did you tell me not to come? How did we let this happen? Jack put his arms around her. Was it worth it? Edie could not speak. They heard the twins come in the front door. Edie disentangled herself, stood up. She had not been crying, but she went to the bathroom and washed her face anyway. "Not a word," she said to Jack as she combed her hair."Why not?""Because.""Okay." Their eyes met in the dresser mirror. She went out, and he heard her say, "How was school?" in a perfectly normal voice. Julia said, "Useless." Valentina said, "You haven't started dinner?" and Edie replied, "I thought we might go to Southgate for pizza." Jack sat on the bed feeling heavy and tired. As usual, he wasn't sure what was what, but at least he knew what he was having for dinner.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. What examples and imagery does the novel contain of people being trapped?2. After Elspeth's out-of-body experience at the very beginning, the novel progresses a long way in a detailed, naturalistic manner before furtther supernatural events begin to occur. What effect does this structure have on you as a reader?3. Ghost stories are traditionally frightening. Did you find any passages of Her Fearful Symmetry scary, or do you think the book was not written with that intention?4. Why is Robert unable to introduce himself to Julia and Valentina for so long, and why does he follow them about London? 5. What examples of symmetry and pairings did you find in the book?6. Do all of the relationships between characters in the book survive intact, or are they changed by events? Do some strike you as more likely to have a future than others?7. Are there any characters you especially identify with? 8. What role does the Little Kitten of Death play in the narrative?9. Why is a cemetery like Highgate such a focus of fascination, in reality as well as for the characters in the novel?10. What do you think happens to Robert at the end of the book?

Editorial Reviews

NATIONAL BESTSELLER LONGLISTED FOR THE INTERNATIONAL IMPAC DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD"An awesomely good read." Chatelaine"Quirkily observed and rich on every level: plot, character, mood and theme.... She conjures a memorable world, and grants most of her characters happy endings, though perhaps not the ones they would have asked for." The Globe and Mail"Entertaining.... The reader is pleasantly carried along by the author’s ability to create credible characters and her instinctive narrative gifts.... The most powerful parts of Her Fearful Symmetry...deal not with paranormal events but with the ordinary pleasures and frustrations of life." The New York Times"A modern Victorian novel revolving around a London cemetery, ghostly hauntings and a well-kept secret.... A bewitching modern-gothic tale that is at once unsettling and intriguing." Chicago Sun-Times"Talk about time travel: The novel blends the history of London’s famed Highgate Cemetery, the remarkable phenomena of mirror-image twins and the question of life after death into a ghost story that feels as if it could have been written a century ago." National Post"Odd and disturbing but intensely mesmerizing and memorable. . . . Niffenegger spins such a riveting story--just like she did in The Time Traveler’s Wife--that suspending disbelief is a pleasure." The Miami Herald