Posts Tagged ‘identical twins’

I’ve been putting off writing a review of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. The novel profoundly bothers me as a  reader and a reviewer. I love novels that are patchworks of various narratives, which is what I believed Her Fearful Symmetry to be. Sadly, it is in literary purgatory. The grey area of I didn’t hate it, but I cannot say it was great, but it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t particularity fascinating either. Her Fearful Symmetry is highly problematic, with occasional meditative moments and tidbits of greatness.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a patchwork of stories taking place in and around Highgate cemetery in London England. The majority of the novel focuses on a set of mirror twins, Julia and Valentina, who inherit their estranged Aunt’s apartment over looking the cemetery. Before the twins can sell the apartment, they must live in it for one year and their parents may not set foot in it.  The apartment is haunted by the ghost of their deceased Aunt, Elspeth, who is an identical twin to the younger twins’ mother, Edie. If you’ve read any books about twins or ghosts you’ll quickly figure out where that narrative strand is going, yes it really is that predictable in a twisted Parent Trap way.

As for the twins, Julia is set on being with her sister at all costs, believing that Valentina cannot live without Julia , since Valentina is shy and sickly. Valentina slowly expresses her wish to live her own life away from Julia. Both are caught in the typical twin metaphor of being thought of as one soul in two bodies. This conflict of interest between the sisters could have taken quite a dark turn or developed into something interesting, but it simply does not.

SPOILER WARNING (Skip to ‘End of Spoilers’ if you care too)




Instead, Valentina, who shows no symptoms of suicidal tendencies, starts to dwell on killing herself as a way to separate herself from her sister. Valentina believes that her death and resurrection via her spectral Aunt is the only way to be free of the burden of the societal expected shared existence of being a twin. (Somehow, Valentina did not think that  talking to her sister or that moving away was an option.)

The other problem is that few of the characters seem realistic and many of their decisions are forced, easy solutions for a ending that tries too hard to be poetic.  For example, I had a hard time buying that Elspeth’s devoted lover of 13 years, Robert, would only take one year to mourn her and then move on to dating one of her nieces. Many of the characters are completely vacant and lacking in any kind of self reflection or critical thinking. (hmm could my apparition of Aunt be angry that I am dating her boyfriend? No, sadly that thought never crosses Valentina’s mind.)





The potential break up of the twins sounds beautiful, but it is bogged down in a multitude superfluous ideas and quick resolutions and non-resolutions that are pulled out of a hat. It is these strings of unresolved ideas and jumping conclusions that in part make the novel problematic. As though it needed to be edited down to focus on a well elaborated narrative strand or two, instead of swimming in a sea of abandoned notions.

Julia’s relationship with upstairs resident, Martin, is easily a favourite part. Martin is the most well developed and provocative character in the novel, though sadly not the main character. He is an intellectual and crossword creator suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which makes him a prisoner to his apartment. Martin’s long time wife, Marijke, finally decides to leave him since she wants to be free of the demands of of his OCD rituals. She dares him to venture to follow her Amsterdam. Julia becomes fascinated with Martin and his routines. She sets out to help fix and investigate him. It through Martin that we learn more about Julia and her particular quirks that develop her into a separate and unique being from Valentina. As I said this is a patchwork of stories, Martin’s story is the best one and by far the most enjoyable. This side story of Martin, Julia and Marijke’s interaction and affection is gloriously romantic and unusual.  Martin’s story is almost enough to make me forgive the other mistakes, but sadly it is only a small section of the book. It is these moments of clarity and development in the novel that make me love it, but the rest of the novel, as I have said, lacks cohesion, which is disappointing.

There is a part of the book where Niffenegger describes Robert’s Ph.D thesis as though it had expanded and lost all perspective. That sentiment is a metaphor what happened to Her Fearful Symmetry. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger spends a lot of time setting up great ideas, and then quickly forgets them as she proposes them. Her Fearful Symmetry truly embodies this scatterbrained-ness which only miffed me in The Time Traveler’s Wife, but now deeply irritates me. I am frustrated with Her Fearful Symmetry, because I can see an awesome story about Martin, his wife and Julia, but it is clouded by dregs of former ideas and a vacant fascination with identical twins.


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