Brooks’ book review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

By Emma Brooks

If you liked The Time Traveler’s Wife, as I did, then you will be curious about Audrey Niffenegger’s next book, Her Fearful Symmetry. It can be difficult to read another book by the same author if you really enjoyed their first, particularly if they turn out to be a bit of a let down.

For example, having loved We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, I tried another one of her books but just didn’t manage to get hooked. There’s no need to worry, however, with this next novel of Audrey Niffenegger’s.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a beautiful yet curious tale of twin sisters Julia and Valentina, left to their own devices in London after the death of their aunt Elspeth, who has bequeathed her flat to them. The twins, who usually live in America and are absolutely inseparable, embark on their first adventure away from home and test not only their ability to cope on their own, but also their own relationship as sisters. Away from the family cocoon, is their relationship actually as strong as it seems, or are they actually striving to create their own independent personalities?

Meanwhile in London, Elspeth’s partner is struggling to cope with her death and to decide what to do with his life now she is gone. When the sisters arrive, it is his opportunity to latch on to life and hope, by showing them around London and being their guide. We watch the relationship between the three of them unfold, simultaneously feeling trepidation over what will happen next, and sadness for these characters who each in their own way are a bit lost, pathetic, and uncertain of who they are and what to do next.

What emerges is a story of love, of fraught relationships and of identity-seeking, as well as being a very unusual ghost story. This is not a ghost story where things go bump in the night, but rather the story of a ghost clinging on to its past life. By following Julia and Valentina in their new lives, we discover a lot about their aunt Elspeth, her life and her friends, as well as about their own mother Elspeth’s sister, who had never much talked about Elspeth.

It becomes obvious that by leaving them her old flat, Elspeth was keen to tell the twins as much as possible about her past life, even if they are not fully aware of it. Given their naivety, it takes them a while to catch on to Elspeth’s hidden motive behind leaving them the flat, but they eventually start to realise, as do we.

If you like books that describe cities you know well, then you will enjoy Her Fearful Symmetry for its description of London, and being able to feel like you are following the twins and other characters on their adventures. But this is not the only reason to like the book.

Once again, Niffenegger manages to take us by surprise by telling us a touching love story with a twist. Her characters are surprising, each with their own odd characteristics, and yet we grow attached to them very early on, hoping against hope that everything will go well for them. It’s not just Julia and Valentina we grow attached to, but Elspeth, her partner, and the upstairs neighbour with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This is without a doubt a bit of a sad love story, with a most unexpected ending. If you are a looking for a new read and a moving tale, then this book is for you.

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