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BOOK REVIEW of HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

November 5, 2009

As many of you know, I am a huge HUGE fan of Niffenegger’s first novel, THE TIME-TRAVELER’S WIFE. It was recently made into a Hollywood movie which I thought sucked. But that’s another blog.

I am happy to report that I loved her new book, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY. The title of the book is derived from a poem written in 1794 by William Blake, “The Tyger.” Just in case you were wondering. I was.

So here’s a description of the novel and then I’ll give you my take.

“The novel opens with a letter that alters the fate of every character. Julia and Valentina Poole are semi-normal American twenty-year-olds with seemingly little interest in college or finding jobs. Their attachment to one another is intense. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. From a London solicitor, the enclosed letter informs them that their English aunt Elspeth Noblin, whom they never knew, has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions to this inheritance: that they live in it for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the estranged Elspeth and Edie, their mother.

The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, , which borders the vast and ornate Highgate Cemetery, where George Eliot, Karl Marx, and many other famous people are buried. The girls come to know the living residents of their building. Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword-puzzle setter suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder; Marijke, Martin’s devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive love, 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.”

So, like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think Niffenegger is a genius at blending the believable with the surreal in a literary way. Storytelling trickery at its best. What I so enjoyed in THE TIME-TRAVELER’S WIFE was the way she bent time to fit into her story–and made time a part of the story itself, almost like a character. She does the same thing here–death and dying occur but not in a scary way AT ALL–more as a catalyst for the story–and also as the setting, given that Highgate Cemetery is where the novel takes place. You get a sense of the history of the place (being American I had no idea) and if you go online, you can see all kinds of pix and learn more about its vaunted history.

This is book had a romantic element, but not the same long-lost pulling for them at all costs kind of story that she wrote for TTTW. If you are looking for a good, solid romance, you will find shades of it here, and even the occasional pop of hope, but that’s about it. Primarily, I see this book as one about obsession–and not just the dude with OCD(Martin, whom I liked very much, BTW). And of course, there’s a major twist at the end that I didn’t see coming–always cool.

All in all, I savoured this book, hoping it wouldn’t end. Mainly because I know it will probably be another five years until she writes another one! Niffenegger is also a visual artist and makes it very clear that churning out novels every year or two is not for her–which, while I respect that, is unfortunate for us.

(FYI–you can purchase this novel at forty percent off at Barnes and Noble if you are a member; thirty percent off for non-members. Amazon has it for fourteen bucks or less used. Go to http://tinyurl.com/y92jegn to purchase from them. Costco probably has an even better deal. Hardcover price is $26.99.)

If you have read it or have your own comments on the book, reply here.

For a great discussion of the book and some Q&A with the author, check out this site: http://www.litlovers.com/guide_her_fearful_symmetry.html

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