Rated Reads

Her Fearful Symmetry

by Audrey Niffenegger

Rated: Moderate

Julia and Valentina are 20-year-old twins living in Chicago, and they have always done everything together. So when their aunt from London, whom they never met, dies and leaves them her apartment there, giving it on the condition that they must live there for a year before they can sell it, they do it and go off together.

They explore the city and await hearing from their aunt Elspeth’s longtime lover, Robert, whose flat is just beneath Elspeth’s. Robert instead quietly follows them and avoids introducing himself for some time. Robert is an expert on the Highgate Cemetery, where a number of famous people are buried, and since their building abuts the cemetery, Robert and the twins have views of the vast, complex place from their apartments.

The cemetery plays a role in the novel just as important as that of the characters. Robert has been working on his thesis on the cemetery for years, and he gives tours. He is absorbed in the lives of the long-buried dead, and after Elspeth’s death, he obsesses about her loss, throwing himself even more deeply into his research and work at Highgate.

The twins meet Robert at last and Julia gets to know their upstairs neighbor, Martin, an obsessive-compulsive who has been unable to leave his apartment for a long time. They also start getting to know their aunt through her apartment and its contents, and as the story progresses, they get to know her in more mysterious ways.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story, a gothic tale shrouded in mystery, in which the characters wander about much like wraiths themselves, unsure of their direction, unsure how to pull themselves out of their stagnant lives.

The novel is compelling and hard to put down once it gets going — at least in terms of the plot; its main drawback is that most of its characters are not very likable; they’re not necessarily un-likable, just distant and somewhat unsympathetic. They’re rather one-dimensional, and the reader just can’t “connect” with them. One exception, actually, is Martin, who, despite his illness, is a bright spot. But the characters are all trapped: Martin in his apartment, Robert and the twins in their ruts, and Elspeth by death. The question that hovers over it all is: how exactly will changes be wrought — and can they possibly lead to happy outcomes?

Rated: Moderate, for a few uses of strong language and some crude sexual references.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • Her Fearful Symmetry
  • by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Rated: Moderate
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: