Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

25th Oct 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger‘s first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was an unequivocal smash hit. As ubiquitous in its time as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, for a few years it seemed that buses and trains were incomplete without a smattering of passengers with their eyes glued to it.

With her follow-up, Her Fearful Symmetry, the message seems to have been ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’ The design and palette of the book’s jacket establish an unmistakeable association with its predecessor and the story again combines a fantastical element with a focus on its emotional ramifications.

The book opens in north London’s Highgate Cemetery with the funeral of Elspeth, an antiquarian book-seller whose early death from leukaemia has left her lover Robert devastated. As the executor of her will, he discovers that she has left her entire estate to her American twin nieces, the daughters of her own estranged twin sister.

The twins come to live in her flat overlooking the cemetery, where they meet Robert as well as Martin, a crossword compiler whose increasingly overwhelming obsessive-compulsive disorder has driven his wife Marijke away. Besides these human encounters, they are also unwittingly sharing the flat with the ghost of Elspeth, who is observing them with interest and gradually learning to make herself manifest.

The plot, written down, looks a little contrived; unfortunately it doesn’t seem any less so when it’s encountered in the course of the book. The different characters are almost without exception completely unconvincing: the twins, Julia and Valentina, are described as physically inverted versions of each other who always dress identically and sleep together every night. Their personalities are correspondingly complementary and co-dependent. It’s all a little too perfect to feel properly human, and throughout the book it’s hard to shake the sense that everyone is fulfilling a literary plan rather than evolving organically.

The emotional line of the plot is concerned with relationships in different stages of rupture – Robert and Elspeth, Julia and Valentina, Martin and Marijke – and it’s in the descriptions of these emotions that Niffenegger shows flashes of the touch which made The Time Traveler’s Wife so successful; her prose is a pleasure to read and it’s easy to pick out moments of delicious insight. But the book’s virtues are ultimately submerged by the characters’ inability to develop into rounded individuals beyond their singular defining traits.

The setting of the book in and around Highgate is emblematic of its problems; the environment has been meticulously and accurately researched but that research jumps a little too obviously from every page with the scrupulous naming of places and descriptions of specific streets. It feels like an annotated Google Map rather than lived experience.

The plot seems equally airless and schematic and, as it progresses and the supernatural elements come more strongly to the fore, the lack of the sense of a real human core makes it harder and harder to care what happens. The fluidity of the writing means it’s never a chore to read but the feeling that the book has nothing to say beyond itself makes Her Fearful Symmetry a huge disappointment.

Have we been too harsh? Her Fearful Symmetry is available for £3.99 if you want to judge for yourself.

Kate Phillips


  • The worst thing for me was the ending – Niffenegger had a convincing ghost story but the ending made it seem totally ridiculous.

    But Niffenegger is so good at writing about love, and that’s why I continued to work through the wooden characters and silly plot.

    • Kate says:

      I agree that she’s at her best when she’s writing about love; the trouble for me was that in The Time Traveler’s Wife she managed to work prose, plot and character into a very effective and coherent whole whereas here the flashes of brilliance in the writing felt submerged in the silliness of the story and the cardboard cut-out characters. It was my awareness that she’s capable of being so much better that made Her Fearful Symmetry such a let-down.

  • Rosie says:

    You’ve not been to harsh at all. In fact, possibly not harsh enough.

    I felt so disappointed by Her Fearful Symmetry that I actually threw it across the room when I reached the last page. I loved TTW, but HFS seemed contrived and forced, with completely unconvincing characters, unnecessary plot devices (why twins when one character would do, really), and a very very irritating and unbelievable ending.

    The best thing about it was Martin.

  • I agree with Rosie on HFS being contrived and forced. However, I was not that disappointed by the book. Overall, I liked it a lot. But I wasn’t sure about the ending.

    My review is here:

    I also liked Martin as character in the book, i.e., a hopeless type, but very interesting. A book around him might have been much more interesting.

  • Kate says:

    Rosie, Judith: I’d agree with you both that Martin was the most interesting of the characters, which made it all the more annoying that we principally got to see him through the prism of Julia’s visits. I’d have liked a lot more about him – his relationship with his son, for example, seemed something which was sporadically mentioned but basically left unexplored. I think the handling of the relationship between him and Marijke was symptomatic of part of the problem. Most of the relationships in the book were well established – or had flowered and gone – by the time the story started. We were told they exist but never get to see any of them in action or to understand why they loved each other. It was hard to believe in Martin and Marijke, or Robert and Elspeth, when we simply had to take their love on trust.

    I also agree with the general dissatisfaction with the ending! For a book which was already quite silly, it span completely out of control and into emotional and metaphysical ludicrousness.