Audrey Niffenegger: Her Fearful Symmetry

Note: I didn’t read the book jacket blurb, or anything else about Her Fearful Symmetry, before reading it. As a result I enjoyed some surprises in this novel that other reviewers or copywriters have revealed. I don’t think Her Fearful Symmetry is so dependent on all its twists that it can’t withstand some spoilers, but I will try to preserve the experience I had for my readers.

Her Fearful Symmetry has many symmetrical sets in it, and a goodly quantity of things that are fearful. The most prominent symmetries concern two sets of twins: Edie and Elspeth (one of whom has just died at the outset of the novel) have long been estranged, with an ocean between them. By contrast, Edie’s daughters Julia and Valentina are so close that their attachment might arguably be described as “unhealthy” — certainly, their mutual dependency makes it hard for them to function as individuals in the world. (In one of several instances of Niffenegger perhaps taking things too far, Valentina suffers from situs inversus, a medical condition that makes her literally the mirror image of her sister, even internally.)

Like Nieffenegger’s first novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry has a certain formalism to it, but it’s expressed very differently. Where The Time Traveler’s Wife tagged each scene with the date and age of the principals, Her Fearful Symmetry explores its titular conceit in a balletic area of resonances and inversions among its twinned twins and those close to them: chiefly Robert, a guide at Highgate Cemetary and author of an enormous unfinished thesis on its many occupants, and Martin, a writer sharply constrained by obsessive compulsive behavior.

Niffenegger also continues to display the same extrapolative rigor that marked The Time Traveler’s Wife. When, at a certain point it becomes clear that Her Fearful symmetry partakes of a specific English literary tradition, its characters actually read some of the works to which reviewers might be tempted to compare it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife used its nonlinear construction to examine the trajectory of a relationship. Her Fearful Symmetry uses its devices to explore the consequences of unresolved grief. As such, it’s a much darker book. I enjoyed it more before the tone of it became clear, but found it compelling almost to the end. (The actual dénouement left me a little unsatisfied, even if it was required by the novel’s structure.)

Dept. of Meaningless Coincidence: I finished Her Fearful Symmetry on an airplane. The in-flight movie? The adaptation of Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

needs more demons? no.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

One thought on “Audrey Niffenegger: Her Fearful Symmetry

  1. I’ve just started the Lorrie Moore book, but Niffenegger’s books are definitely on my to-read list after hearing/reading your (and Amy’s) thoughts on them.


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