Her Fearful Symmetry

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When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers—with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. They are twenty....
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Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel

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When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers—with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. They are twenty. .

The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building’s other residents. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including—perhaps—their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind..

Niffenegger weaves a captivating story in Her Fearful Symmetry about love and identity, about secrets and sisterhood, and about the tenacity of life—even after death..

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Like its predecessor, The Time Traveler's Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry has a plot both vividly original and yet evocative of time-etched genres; in this case, the neo-gothic. The story involves Julia and Valentina, seemingly typical American teens who have inherited their aunt's London flat. The apartment, as it happens, sits beside Highgate Cemetery, a shadowy burial place that possesses a presence of its own. To this strange mix, Niffenegger adds a medley of neighbors with whole battalions of obsessions and other disorders. The plot is engulfing, the characters unforgettable.
From the Publisher
"The endurance of love animates this gothic story set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London. Niffenegger's prose can be wearyingly overblown, but she has a knack for taking the romantic into the realm of creepiness, and she constructs a taut mystery around the secrets... It's no small achievement that the revelations are both organic and completely unexpected." -- The New Yorker

"Bewitching...Lovers of Niffenegger's past work should rejoice... Her Fearful Symmetry is as atmospheric and beguiling as a walk through Highgate itself." -- Susann Cokal, New York Times Book Review (front page)

"Frighteningly smart... Millions of readers who enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife ... will find a similar theme in Her Fearful Symmetry: romance that transgresses all natural barriers.... Deliciously creepy." -- Ron Charles, Washington Post

"A compelling modern-day ghost story set in and around London's atmospheric Highgate cemetery...An engrossing love story that crosses to the 'other side,' Symmetry offers an inventive take on sibling rivalry, personal identity and what it's like to be dead." -- People (3 1/2 stars)

"Niffenegger piles on plenty of action... The book's end [is] a genuine surprise... Elspeth's death ... is moving, as is Robert's surprising immediate reaction to it... [Martin] is intricate and fascinating, especially because of Niffenegger's ability to get inside his head.... Niffenegger is especially good on the subject of twins... [She] deftly plumbs the depths of her subject, showing a profound and imaginative understanding." -- Martin Rubin, Los Angeles Times

"[A] gravely buoyant new novel of phantom loves and all-too-tangible fears." -- O, the Oprah magazine

"Niffenegger is an extraordinarily sensitive and accomplished writer, and Her Fearful Symmetry is a work of lovely delicacy." -- Lev Grossman, Time

"Following up a phenomenal blockbuster is not easy, but Niffenegger rises to the task with Her Fearful Symmetry. Fans will find plenty of rewards in her clever ... [and] unique modern ghost story... Her descriptions transport the reader directly into a moody Victorian landscape of beauty and death... Mesmerizing... A deeply moving story filled with unforgettable characters... A beautiful testament to Niffenegger's fertile imagination and love of storytelling." -- Mary Houlihan, Chicago Sun-Times

"An intriguing look at kinship and the danger of getting what you wished for." -- Good Housekeeping

"Entertaining... The reader is pleasantly carried along by the author's ability to create credible characters and her instinctive narrative gifts." -- Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

Ron Charles
Niffenegger slowly draws out the relationship between the indolent young twins in a strange dance that's alternately charming and sinister…Their sisterly devotion sounds sweet until it seems suffocating, with a touch of incestuous frisson that would leave Edgar Allan Poe queasy…keep the children away and dust off the Ouija board; you're about to make contact with something deliciously creepy.
—The Washington Post
Susann Cokal
…bewitching…Lovers of Niffenegger's past work should rejoice. This outing may not be as blindly romantic as The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it is mature, complex and convincing—a dreamy yet visceral tale of loves both familial and erotic, a search for Self in the midst of obsession with an Other. Her Fearful Symmetry is as atmospheric and beguiling as a walk through Highgate itself.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Niffenegger follows up her spectacular The Time Traveler's Wife with a beautifully written if incoherent ghost story. When Elspeth Noblin dies, she leaves everything to the 20-year-old American twin daughters of her own long-estranged twin, Edie. Valentina and Julia, as enmeshed as Elspeth and Edie once were, move into Elspeth's London flat bordering Highgate Cemetery in a building occupied by Elspeth's lover, Robert, and the novel's most interesting character, Martin, whose wife is long suffering due to his crushing and beautifully portrayed OCD. The girls are pallid and incurious; they wander around London and spend time with Robert and Martin and Elspeth's ghost. Valentina's developing relationship with Robert arouses mild jealousy, and when Valentina pursues her interest in fashion design, Julia disapproves, which leads Valentina and Elspeth to concoct an extreme plan to allow Valentina to lead her own life. The plan, unsurprisingly, goes awry, followed by weakly foreshadowed and confusing twists that take the plot from dull to silly. While Niffenegger's gifted prose and past success will garner readers, the story is a disappointment. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
Twin sisters inherit a London flat, and a bundle of baggage, from their mother's long-estranged twin. Elspeth has expired at 44 of cancer, leaving her younger lover and neighbor Robert bereft and obsessed with her memory. Robert is entrusted with her diaries and named executor of her will, which bequeaths her flat and substantial cash reserves to her 20-year-old twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. Elspeth's twin sister Edie and her husband Jack, a Chicago banker, receive nothing and are expressly forbidden to visit the flat. Presumably, Elspeth's hostility stems from the fact that, 20 years before, Edie had eloped with Jack, then Elspeth's fiance, and fled with him to Chicago. When the girls move to London, their own sibling rivalry escalates. Julia dominates minutes-younger Valentina, forcing her to share a life of indolence rather than pursue her ambition to be a fashion designer. Robert, a perennial doctorate candidate writing his thesis on the historic 19th-century cemetery Highgate, is intimately familiar with all manner of Victorian morbidity, including the extreme measures taken to avoid being buried alive. Robert introduces the twins to the all-volunteer staff of Highgate, where many luminaries, including Karl Marx and George Eliot, are buried. Valentina is drawn to Robert, who finds her resemblance to Elspeth uncanny, unnerving and ultimately irresistible. Julia befriends upstairs neighbor Martin, an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose wife, finally fed up with his draconian rituals, has just left him. Meanwhile, Elspeth has returned to her former flat, training her ghostly self to communicate with the occupants. Only Valentina can see her, and she enlists her aunt's aid ingetting free of Julia. The manner in which Elspeth accomplishes Valentina's liberation, and the mind-boggling double cross revealed in the diaries, are breathtakingly far-fetched. Gimmickry, supernatural and otherwise, blunts what could have been an incisive inquiry into the mysteries and frustrations of too-close kinship from the talented Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife, 2003, etc.).
The Barnes & Noble Review
Fortune's wheel is a harsh chastiser, and those lucky writers who have found heady success with their first books often come crashing down with the second, never to rise again. What's the cause? Do they succumb to nerves from external expectations? Do they secretly feel unworthy? Are our expectations as readers unreasonable? Have they merely been sport for the gods?

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger's first book, was Cinderella at the ball -- a book that got published without a literary agent behind it, a popular success that was a critical one too. Its distinctive (and, I assume from Niffenegger's acknowledgments, long-steeped) flavor completely eluded the dumb movie made from it. Describing the novel as blending fantasy, science fiction, romance, mild philosophy, and epistolary traditions is technically accurate, but fails to capture its unusual charm: its balance of inevitability and suspense, the importance of conversations both humorous and tersely poignant, the cultural riffs and bookish background of Chicago in the '80s and '90s, the bubble of optimism that buoys it up even in the face of death and decay. It's a great read. Given the weight of expectations (and money) riding on her second book, the conditions were ripe for Niffenegger to dig her own grave. But it turns out that in her second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger gets her characters to do the grisly digging for themselves while she floats out smelling like a rose.

The book is mostly set in London, indeed mostly in, around, and even under Highgate Cemetery. Connoisseurs of graveyards will recognize it as the now lushly overgrown final resting place of Victorians eager to escape the horrors of urban burial where Dickens, among others, described dogs running off with the bones of the less recently departed. Famous inhabitants of Highgate include Karl Marx, George Eliot, and Lizzie Siddal, dug up seven years after her death by her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, when he had second thoughts about publishing those manuscript poems he'd romantically but rashly buried with her. (The story goes that her red-gold hair had continued to grow to fill the coffin, but the red-leather-covered manuscript was worm-holed, damp, and stained.)

The cemetery provides the ground against which twin American young women -- still really girls in much of their behavior and manner, naive and antiseptic -- come to determine the shape of their lives. Julia and Valentina have grown up in the Chicago suburbs. They have taken on some unimaginative generational protective coloration (on tv "President Bush was talking to Karl Rove.... The twins gave the finger to the president and his aide in unison"), but they are in fact rather odd. To begin with, they are physically distinctive -- pale and etiolated -- and there are two of them, identical but flipped: mirror-image twins. They usually dress identically and do the same things. They are striking, and yet somehow insubstantial. Their actions and opinions are curiously trivial. But, as the man said, the prospect of death concentrates the mind wonderfully. The twins first face death at a distance. An aunt, their mother's twin sister, whom they barely knew existed, has died and left them something: her flat, which not only overlooks Highgate Cemetery but is built into its walls. When they move there, death becomes closer.

Even unavoidable. Robert, one of their fellow tenants and their Aunt Elspeth's lover, should serve as an instructive example. He started off visiting the cemetery because he was writing a dissertation about Victorian funerary practices and ended up living next door to it, giving tours of the cemetery, and sneaking in at night. Robert has found that "he liked the cemetery itself much better than anything he wrote about it." That's saying something, because his draft is very long. Their other fellow tenant, Martin, is an obsessive-compulsive crossword-puzzle setter -- the cryptic kind, natch. He escapes the cemetery's influence by papering over his windows. Or does he? For surely he's managed to immure himself in a simulacrum of a crypt. In fact, all of them -- Martin, Julia, Valentina, and even the dead Elspeth -- share Robert's problem: "He began to take the cemetery personally and lost all perspective."

Niffenegger lures us into this sepulchral world, too. For the most part, she shapes her crepuscular atmosphere subtly, even down to using English spellings. As a child, I had a quite distinct sense of certain words when they were spelled the English way: "draught" (which I mispronounced) seemed hollower and more penetratingly chilly than "draft," "spectre" more haunting, and "grey" a wispy whisper of tint. Like the best ghost stories, Niffenegger's ghost story takes shape from evocative foggy patches, half-remembered phrases and twists of plot. It's not exactly deja vu all over again, but Her Fearful Symmetry is a very bookish ghost story. In fact, Elspeth, her ghost, learns a lot about post-life behavior via books -- Henry James, M. R. James, Noël Coward, and Gray's Anatomy.

The Victorians thrilled to ghost stories, creepy ones, of course, but even ultimately comic ones like Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Recently, in the last ten years or so, there seems to have been a resurgence of wonderful, and bookish, supernatural tales: A. S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and Neil Gaiman's Cemetery Book. These books seem to transcend the limitations of pastiche and genre to appeal to people who don't think of themselves as liking science fiction, fantasy, or ghost stories -- and that would include me. Audrey Niffenegger's book -- in which Gaiman appears in the lengthy acknowledgments -- is a worthy addition to these predecessors.

An additional note: Niffenegger has endowed Robert with an extensive admiration for a bunch of famous dead Victorians, but he disdains Mrs. Henry Wood, the author of sensational stories like her bestselling novel East Lynne. Robert might be a happier man today if he'd read her more seriously. The melodramatic East Lynne turns on adultery, disguise, and a dying child. But of the 30 or so novels Ellen Wood wrote, her own favorite was The Shadow of Ashlydyat, a ghost story in which supernatural phenomena are not explained away, and in which (most unusually for the moral Mrs. Wood, whose first novel won an award from a temperance society) an energetic and unscrupulous woman is left unchecked at the end. Both of these novels are still in print more than 100 years later. That's an afterlife to aspire to. --Alexandra Mullen

Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439165393
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 9/29/2009
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 426,867
  • Lexile: 690L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Audrey Niffenegger
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 of Ghostly. She lives in Chicago.


In her book Three Incestuous Sisters, Audrey Niffenegger tells the tale of a trio of sisters, each with her own special trait. There is blond Bettine, the beautiful one, blue-haired Ophile, the smart one, and then there's Clothilde. While hardly unintelligent and certainly not unattractive, it is still probably no coincidence that Niffenegger decided to cast her fellow redhead Clothilde as the talented one considering that she is so abundant in talent. A gifted illustrator and writer, Niffenegger is parlaying her quirky imagination into one of the most interesting bodies of work in contemporary literature.

Niffenegger's love of writing developed when she was a young girl, quietly spending her time writing and illustrating books as a hobby. Her wonderfully eccentric imaginativeness was in play from her earliest writing efforts. "My ‘first' novel was an epic about an imaginary road trip [sic] I went on with The Beatles," she explains on her website, "handwritten in turquoise marker, seventy pages long, which I wrote and illustrated when I was eleven."

Niffenegger's mini-magical mystery tour may have been her "first novel," but the first one to which the rest of the world would be privy came many years later. She had already established herself as a prominent artist whose work had been shown in the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Library of Congress, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University when The Time Traveler's Wife was published in 2003. "I wanted to write about a perfect marriage that is tested by something outside the control of the couple," Niffenegger told bookbrowse.com. "The title came to me out of the blue, and from the title sprang the characters, and from the characters came the story."

The Time Traveler's Wife, a sci-fi romance about the mercurial time traveler Henry and Clare, the wife who patiently awaits his return to the present, became a sensation upon its publication. This thoroughly original love story captured mass praise from USA Today, The Washington Post, People Magazine, and The Denver Post, not to mention celebrity couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, who promptly purchased the rights to the book and are currently developing it into a motion picture.

Now that she had established herself as a talent to watch, Niffenegger finally had the opportunity to produce a book she would describe as "a fourteen-year labor of love." Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel, is a gorgeous, modern-gothic storybook about the love and rivalry shared between three women. With its minimal text, Niffenegger's chiefly uses her eerie illustrations to convey the sisters' story. Booklist summed up Three Incestuous Sisters quite succinctly by stating that "Niffenegger's grim yet erotic tale and stunningly moody gothic prints possess the sly subversion of Edward Gorey, the emotional valence of Edvard Munch, and her very own brilliant use of iconographic pattern, surprising perspective, and tensile line in the service of a delectable, otherworldly sensibility."

Now, Niffenegger is turning her attentions back to straight prose as she works on a new novel. "It's called Her Fearful Symmetry," she revealed in an online chat with the Hennepin County Library. "It's set in London's Highgate Cemetery, and features as many of the cliches of 19th century fiction as I can summon." Amazingly, with such a wide variety of styles in her still budding body of work -- from science fiction to fairy tale to her impending period piece -- Audrey Niffenegger's books still share a strong sense of unity, a distinctly peculiar and particular vision. "The thing that unites all my work is narrative," she said on her website. "I'm interested in telling stories, and I'm interested in creating a world that's recognizable to us as ours, but is filled with strangeness and slight changes in the rules of the universe."

Good To Know

In our interview, Niffenegger shared some fun facts about herself:

"My current job is teaching graduate students how to write, print type on letterpresses, and create limited-edition books by hand. I work for Columbia College's Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago. I helped to found the Center, and it is the center of my universe nine months of the year. The other three months I try to ignore the phone, and I do my own work."

"I make art. Readers can see some of it at Printworks Gallery in Chicago. They have a web site: printworkschicago.com."

"Almost all of the places mentioned in my book are real places that you can visit. The Newberry Library is open to people who have research projects that fit the collections of the Newberry. Vintage Vinyl is a real record store in Evanston. The Aragon Ballroom, South Haven, Michigan, Bookman's Alley, The Berghoff -- I heartily recommend them all."

"I collect taxidermy, skeletons, books (of course), comics (mostly Raw and post-Raw independent stuff, no superheroes). I only collect small taxidermy, no bison heads, my place isn't that big. I don't own a TV. I spend a lot of time hanging out with my boyfriend, Christopher Schneberger, and attending Avocet concerts (Avocet is the band Chris plays drums with). We travel a lot; my new book is set in London, so there's lots of research to do. I garden, in a rather haphazard way. I also enjoy finding, buying, and wearing vintage clothes. All in all, it's a pleasant life."

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    1. Hometown:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 13, 1963
    2. Place of Birth:
      South Haven, Michigan
    1. Education:
      B.F.A., School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1985; M.F.A., Northwestern University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

The End

Espeth 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 towards 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. Copyright © 2009 by Audrey Niffenegger

Last Letter

The 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,

Edie 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?"


"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. Copyright © 2009 by Audrey Niffenegger

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Reading Group 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?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 829 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Selfish and annoying characters, don't waste your time.

    I could have perhaps enjoyed this book, though the plot was not the most original. The characters ruined it for me though. There was not a single character in this book that I found likeable. Julia and Valentina annoyed me to no end, always dressing alike, sleeping together, feeling that any career one of them chooses must involve the other... They are so co-dependent. And then when Valentina finally decides that she is going to "leave" Julia, she can't wait six months and move out? She has to do something so drastic that causes so many people pain? It didn't make any sense and I felt like she sort of deserved what she got in the end. And the same goes for Julia.

    Elspeth obviously was probably the most self-serving character in the book, based on her actions at the end. I liked Robert well enough, even if he wasn't overly interesting, until the very end, when he proved to be just as selfish as the rest of them.

    The twins' relationships with much older men was also completely creepy.

    I have read books before where I didn't like the characters but still enjoyed the book, because the characters were meant to be disliked (i.e. "Wideacre" by Phillipa Gregory). However, I think the author of "Her Fearful Symmetry" meant for the characters to be likeable, and they weren't. At all.

    I give the book 2 stars because the writing was decent, and I enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions of the cemetary. But I really can't recommend the book as a whole. The conceptualization of life-after-death was also sort of interesting and unique, so that was nice. But the few positive things about the book don't make up for the awful characters. I wanted to strangle every single one of them at some point or another. They make horrible decisions that are based solely on their own wants and needs with no regard for the well-being of the other people they supposedly love. Again, that's fine if your characters are meant to be an anti-heroes or -heroines, but not fine in a book where you want your readers to like and sympathize with them.

    Skip this one.

    23 out of 29 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Great Ghost Story!

    A pair of twin girls find themselves coming of age in a unique way. Their aunt, the twin sister to the girls' mother, has died and left her flat to the twin girls. The aunt has stipulations however. The girls' mother and father are not allowed to set foot in the apartment for the year they are required to live there in order to inherit her estate. Their mother refuses to divulge the deep, dark secret that has kept her and her sister apart for the years since the twins were very young. After the girls move into the flat, Valentina, the more sensitive of the two, begins to believe the place is haunted. And of course, it is, by the ghost of their aunt who is trapped in the apartment and tries to find ways to communicate with the girls. This story also follows the struggles the twins themselves have as one tries to pull away from her sister to live her own life, and the other who desperately hopes that doesn't happen because they had vowed always to be together. This is a ghost story and mystery wrapped up together, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The story was sometimes predictable, but there were surprises too. I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes a good ghost story. You'll like the characters, and you'll find yourself pulling for the twin who wants to be more independent while understanding why the other one doesn't want it to be that way. And you'll enjoy the path to the end where things might not turn out exactly as you thought they would. Or maybe they will and you'll find yourself enjoying the ride anyway.

    12 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Intricate and Compelling

    Considering the critical and commercial success of "The Time Traveler's Wife", Niffenegger's second novel has a lot to live up to. Within its elegantly written pages are familiar themes: dysfunctional families with terrible secrets, love overcoming great obstacles, and life after death. As you may expect, the author takes these conventions and breathes new life into them. "Her Fearful Symmetry" is dark, labyrinthine, beautiful, and unexpected. The story will leave you thinking about it long after you are done reading. And isn't that what every great novel should do?

    12 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Took My Breath Away

    From the first page, I was drawn into Audrey Niffenegger's new novel and could not put it down.

    Not a character in the traditional sense, but the building where the twins live in London is adjacent to the famous Highgate Cemetery which takes on a life of its own. Ironically, the cemetery is not where the spookiest events occur. Instead, it becomes a sanctuary of sorts, or a canvas upon which to tell this ghost story.

    Niffenegger explores the twins' relationship, which on its own is compelling, as she peels away each layer and exposes one dysfunction at a time, it becomes the heart of the whole piece.

    That is not to say the author doesn't develop the other characters and the other relationships in the novel. Martin and Mariyke's relationship alone could have easily supported its own novel. Their relationship was just as fascinating to me as any of the others.

    You have to let yourself go there, to this alternate reality that Niffenegger creates for her readers. Once you do, the story will pull you in, and these characters will, pardon the pun, haunt you.

    I find that I must say something about The Time Traveler's Wife. While the two books share a certain spirit, they are both beautifully unique. If Ms. Niffenegger chooses to take another 6 years to write her next novel, I am okay with that, as long as she continues to bring us brilliance.

    11 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Well written but disappointing

    Her Fearful Symmetry again shows off Niffennegger's impeccable writing skills. It is a well written book, and you feel that you know the characters because their mannerisms and characteristics are so vivid and realistic. This book fell short for me because it did not have the magic that I experienced with The Time Traveler's Wife. It was slow-paced, and the plot was just a little too out of left field for me. I wanted more from the ending.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Not worth the buy, but might be worth the read if you fit into one of these categories...

    I recommend this book to the following people: 1) Die hard fans of Niffeneggar's style of writing (emphasis on "die hard") 2) Fans of Victorian cemetery history (Not too many of you out there? Didn't think so). 3) People who hate their sisters and/or are resentful of being a twin 4) People who are turned on by polite, adorably awkward British historians with a penchant for much younger or much older women 5) People who love a good obsessive/compulsive underdog. 6) People who enjoy books that suck you into the world of the characters and their journeys only to pull the rug out from under you once you begin to care. If you do not fit into one of these categories, I doubt that this book would make your "Best Of 2009" book list. Many reviews have commented that this book starts out strong but then take some bizarre turns which seem completely ridiculous. These reviews are accurate. My advice? Go the library route for this book. It's not worth having in your library, although the cover is beautiful. In some ways the book is too, but it leaves you, like the characters, with too many regrets at how you've invested your time.

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 27, 2009

    It fell fearfully flat

    This book started off as a promising read. I was totally absorbed with Robert's grief over Elspeth's death. But then, the plot started to get screwy, and the characters never developed beyond stick figures for me. I think part of the problem with the character development was the omniscient point-of-view from which the author wrote. The reader is given access into everyone's minds (and I do mean everyone) yet we never get to know any of the characters on that deep-gut level.

    The twins were just stupid, immature and ill-developed as characters. I got the distinct impression that Ms. Niffenegger got a bit carried away in her research on twins and got so sidetracked by wanting to share with us all of her newfound knowledge that she paid no attention to how she was utilizing that knowledge -- which either contradicted the characters' actions or else didn't further the storyline at all.

    And then Robert, initially my favorite character, totally zigzagged in directions I couldn't fathom. In one moment he's sneaking into the twins' apartment to conduct romantic seances with Elspeth, then hours later he's taking Valentina out to dinner and making romantic overtures. I just didn't get it, and I found myself not liking any of the characters, nor giving a fig about their fates, either individually or collectively. The one exception was Martin and his wife, both of whom were well-drawn. Still, were they necessary to the book? I think not. Their story had absolutely no bearing on the main plot.

    All in all, this book was a huge disappointment that left me feeling depressed and totally unfulfilled upon finishing it. Ms. Niffenegger writes beautifully, but hopefully she'll figure out how to tell her next story a bit better. I will give her one more shot with her next book. If it's no better than "Her Fearful Symmetry" then stick a fork in me, for I shall be done.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 29, 2010

    An Interesting Ghost Story

    I thought this was a unique and interesting book. I thought the characters were unique and exciting. I could not put it down, and even though the ending was a little sad I enjoyed the twist and the overall plot flow. The relationship between the two sisters and the aunt and the mother are very complex, tangled, and deep. Their conflicts and problems are opposite yet their solutions mirror each other in some ways. I have never read another book by her but I am looking forward to it. I would encourage others to read this book, it is not your average story.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 3, 2010

    Silly book

    I found this book to be inane. The plot is predictable. The main characters - either set of twins - were not likable.
    But then I didn't like the Time Traveler's Wife either.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Wonderful Modern Gothic Story!

    "Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup." And so begins Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry. This exquisitely written first sentence of the first chapter titled, "The End," both shocks and attracts the reader. The story itself is replete with unpredictable plot twists and turns.

    As one who has not yet read Niffenegger's blockbuster The Time Traveler's Wife I was able to enjoy the novel without the raised expectations (and/or assumptions) that some readers experienced. As such I can honestly say that I loved Her Fearful Symmetry even as I also confess that I did not love the main characters (apart from the OCD neighbor Martin) or the ending. Normally, these factors would probably negate my enjoyment of the novel, but such is not the case because Niffenegger's tale is that engaging!

    This modern-gothic, character-driven novel is set in London and, more specifically, Highgate Cemetery. The famous cemetery is central to the plot and becomes an additional character in the story. In fact the novel did such a thorough job of incorporating its essence into the story that I now hope to visit it someday!

    Her Fearful Symmetry is a well-written unique story that is hard to put down!

    Publisher: Scribner; Simon & Schuster(September 29, 2009), 416 pages
    Review Copy Provided Courtesy of the publisher.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2009

    A bit confusing, but.....

    I actually enjoyed this book much more than the time traveler's wife, however, it is a lot to mull over. Some of the characters were selfish in the extreme, and not really likeable, but I don't believe that means they are not well developed. They just weren't all that likeable as people. I loved the setting (london); have been once, but briefly. Would love to go back, especially to see the cemetary. The twins were sometimes too intense, but I'm not a twin, so I can't really judge what that would be like. Loved the character of Martin, although I could never live with him (I actually have an obsessive/compulsive disorder friend, so I can relate). "Elspeth", the main character, I did not much like, but who is to say I would not have made the same (awful) choices she made, if I were in her situation. I did not find the novel at all boring, in fact, I read the whole thing in a couple of days. I found the ending sad in parts, and puzzling in others. Robert, I liked, but found him weak (as a person). I was puzzled by some of his actions. The twins had a very intense relationship, but did not always act as intensely as you would imagine them to, especially under extreme conditions. That would probably be my only real criticism. This book does not have a happy ending for most, and leaves you wondering about the others. All in all though, I would say it was much better than her first. Frankly, I could not get past the beginning of her first book. I was too bored, and did not care about the characters enough to keep reading. I think this book would be worthwhile for book clubs to read; should generate some interesting discussions.....

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 6, 2009

    I Also Recommend:


    LOVED IT! Elspeth dies from leukemia, leaves her estate to her twin nieces, who happen to be her twin sister's girls. Elspeth is still there...guiding, watching....as 20 yr. old Julie and Valentina endeavor to uncover devastating secrets and will captivate the reader with plenty of intrigue and mystery. Totally engaging and exciting!!!

    Two other captivating and exciting books I'd like to recommend are EXPLOSION IN PARIS, by L. Pirrung and THE HELP by, K. Stockett.....two more to add to your "Masterpiece List"

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Elegant and fascinating.

    You have to hand it to Audrey Niffenegger... She knows how to write beautiful prose. This book was fabulously written, if not fabulous overall.

    While I do appreciate the concept established by the ending of wish fulfillment (be careful what you wish for), and was tittilated by how each of the characters grasped what they wanted in their own ways, although not *how* they wanted it and, as always, was impressed by the writing, this isn't a book I actually enjoyed.

    It is lovely and fascinating. It is a book I will probably read many times in the future. But beware that you go into it expecting The Time Traveler's Wife, which it is not. Time Traveler's Wife was almost the exact opposite; all about the joy of longing and constant suspense of relationships, the agony and redeeming power of love. Her Fearful Symmetry is all about getting what you want--it is darker, has a much harder, uglier edge, and you won't like the characters very much.

    Having said all that, I still do highly recommend the book. Just... Knowing in advance what you're about to read will make it much more palatable.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 21, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Well Written, Great Characters, But Unfortunately, Anti-climactic...

    I'm not sure how I came to own this book or on what grounds I became interested in it. But Her Fearful Symmetry was one of those books you read and you simply walk away from it without any strong feelings, either positive or negative. Having never read anything by Audrey Niffenegger, I didn't know what to expect. But the writing style was brilliant and the story was quite intriguing for the most part. After a while though, the forced British cultural references became awkward for some reason (maybe because I knew it was coming from an American author) and I found myself doing a lot of "hurry up and wait" for certain plot events to happen. All in all, I finished this book wanting to say that I really enjoyed it. But the major plot twist is one that you can see coming a mile away. The lavish setting of the story really wasn't used to its full potential: the cemetery and the flat were such cool and interesting places that could have been more central to the story but in the end it was really just a place where everyone lived. And lastly, the richly developed characters (Niffenegger's strongest element) became so disappointing in the end. I don't know what was missing exactly, but I just thought they all should have amounted to something more. There was just no consequence, no resolution, no real ending other than the fact that we are no longer allowed to listen in on these peoples' lives. So I would reccommend this book to some people, because it was a captivating read. Twins will love it, people who strive to live vicariously through others will love it, and I'm sure Ouija Board enthusiasts will find it a gas. But I personally would not have read this if I knew it would end the way it did. The story may involve ghosts and the like, but it is NOT a "ghost story" and for me it was just average.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 31, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Disappointing Novel

    I was very disappointed with this book. The plot had potential but the story was weak and so was the character development. Too much time was spent describing the cemetery. There were several subpolts but they weren't given ther due either. If you have chosen this book because you were a fan of The Time Traveler's Wife, I suggest you pick something else. This is in no way as well written or captivating.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2009

    This is the worst book I have ever read.

    The first 100 pages were good and kept me interested. Once the twins got to London it was boring and just stupid. The last 100 pages could not suck enough. I have never reviewed ANYTHIG before but this book was bad that I had to. The book is awful save your time and money.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    I really wanted to read this book after reading The Time Travelers Wife (Loved that book). This one was a let down. I didn't even know I had finished the book until I saw acknowledgements. I actually turned the page back just to make sure the end of the book, was really the end of the book. It's like watching a movie and the credits start to roll and you jump out of your seat and say "WHAT? THAT'S IT???". Horrible ending. The most exciting part of the book was Mr. OCD (and the cover). I was terribly disappointed.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A different kind of ghost story. Creepy in the telling and disturbingly wrong at times, yet it lures you in.

    It's impossible to discuss this novel without giving away bits of the story so I won't discuss plot. What I will discuss are some of the characters and how I felt while reading it. The start of the book was a tad slow but it picked up pretty quickly. Once you know all of the players, and there are only a handful of characters in this novel, you pretty much just sit back and take it all in. The twins are creepy. Both Elspeth/Edie and Valentina/Julia. Although the younger set appear to be somewhat normal, their dependence upon one another is a real turn-off at times and they still dress alike which at twenty-something says a lot about them. Weird!

    Although I didn't care for the twins too much, I was fascinated with the other characters in the novel, my favorite being Martin. Martin lives above the twins and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. His compulsions are well-drawn and easy to visualize. He's such a nervous sort, that you can't help but feel sorry for him. Underneath all of his insecurities is a decent man and that comes through. I enjoyed reading about him.

    Elspeth, the ghost, interested me in the beginning but my opinion of her changed towards the end. What I found fascinating about her, was the learning process of being a ghost. Hiding in drawers, short-circuiting TVs, flicking lights on and off. Good stuff. As the story progresses things get creepier and Elspeth becomes more desperate, as do some of the other characters in the story. The overall desperation left me a bit depressed. I felt as if my insides were scooped out in some way.

    Those that enjoy traditional ghost stories may be a tad surprised. Her Fearful Symmetry is not a traditional ghost story even though it has the requisite cemetery, two sets of creepy twins and a lot of smoke and mirrors. It's.different. The characters talk to themselves a lot. I really enjoyed that part though. There are secrets and twists yet they aren't really that surprising once revealed. Meaning, they won't floor you, but they will bewilder you a bit. If you can step outside of what you consider a traditional ghost story to be, then you will enjoy this one. Although this one left me feeling a bit hollow, I still enjoyed it quite a bit for the characters.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 22, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Fearful? yes...

    This really is one big huge disapointment to me. I really enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife and I was looking forward to this book but it has a convoluted, ridiculous plot, no redeeming characters (not to mention minimum character development) and was boring to boot.

    My advice? Don't bother.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 22, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:


    I'm a big fan of Audrey Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. In it she took an unlikely supernatural phenomenon and deftly inserted it into the lives of deep, sensitive, totally alive characters. She has tried to use the same formula again. Instead of time travel, we are meant to believe in ghosts and resurrection. But this time the characters are not as interesting and the phenomenon is introduced far too late in the novel so that the reader feels it was jammed in as an afterthought. And it's a shame because she had a lot of juicy ingredients with which to craft what could have been a creepy modern ghost story; the famous Highgate Cemetary, an colorful OCD with marital issues, two sets of identical blonde twins and the best setting for a suspense novel, London.

    The two stunning plot twists which come at the end are handled so clumsily that they lose any dramatic impact they might have added to the tale. The journalistic term "burrying the lead" comes to mind. One gets the feeling that Niffenegger ran out of time on her deadline and rushed the ending. The first two-thirds of the novel are well paced, establishing the mood, drawing the characters, setting the plot in motion. Then in the final third, when all the plot lines and characters should come together in a shattering but satisfying climax, it falls apart.

    And yet her writing is superb. Her deft, gentle hand at description and characterization is a wonderful treat. You breathe and live with these characters. You can smell them and taste them. She makes us feel deeply the special claustrophobia of an identical twin, the desperate shame of a someone with OCD, and the suicidal melancholy of a man who has lost his love.

    Despite its flaws, I liked it. But I didn't love it the way I love TTW. I didn't rush back the the beginning to immediately re-read it as I did with TTW.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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