Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry
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Robert took off his round wire-rimmed glasses and his shoes. He climbed into the bed, careful not to disturb Elspeth, and folded himself around her. For weeks she had burned with fever, but now her temperature was almost normal. He felt his skin warm slightly where it touched hers. She had passed into the realm of inanimate objects and was losing her own heat. Robert pressed his face into the back of Elspeth’s neck and breathed deeply.

Elspeth watched him from the ceiling. How familiar he was to her, and how strange he seemed. She saw, but could not feel, his long hands pressed into her waist — everything about him was elongated, his face all jaw and large upper lip; he had a slightly beakish nose and deep-set eyes; his brown hair spilled over her pillow. His skin was pallorous from being too long in the hospital light. He looked so desolate, thin and enormous, spooned around her tiny slack body; Elspeth thought of a photograph she had seen long ago in National Geographic, a mother clutching a child dead from starvation. Robert’s white shirt was creased; there were holes in the big toes of his socks. All the regrets and guilts and longings of her life came over her. No, she thought. I won’t go. But she was already gone, and in a moment she was elsewhere, scattered nothingness.

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger, is the story of a strange cast of characters, brought together by the death of Elspeth, a 44-year-old twin living on the edge of Highgate Cemetery in London. Elspeth lived in a large, expensive flat, above Robert, her younger lover, and below Martin and Marijike. Martin is OCD to the extreme, and in a way is the symbol for all of the characters, for their various obsessions and hang-ups.

Elspeth has left her flat and its contents to her young nieces, twins Julia and Valentina, under the condition that they come and live in her flat together for one year, and that their parents not be allowed to enter. Elspeth has a secret that she does not want the parents, her twin sister Edie especially, unearthing. Julia and Velentina come to London from Chicago, eager to live on their own, yet together, away from their parents, and from the pressures of college, which Valentina very much wants to complete, but will not do without Julia, who has no interest in anything that might someday lead to her and Valentina living separate lives.

Robert, Elspeth’s lover, is a graduate student working on his thesis, which he is writing about the cemetery. He studies there, volunteers and gives tours, and has come to know the other employees like family. His thesis has become unwieldy, as he has lost the ability to filter out extraneous information. He misses Elspeth desperately, and finds himself avoiding the twins, as they remind him so much of his lost love.

Marijike cannot bear to live with Martin’s illness anymore, and leaves him for a home in her native Amsterdam. He misses her, but he cannot leave his apartment, due to his OCD and severe agoraphobia.

As Julia and Valentina come to know their neighbors, they begin to question their own desires and hopes for their future, helped along the way by their Aunt Elspeth, who isn’t quite as dead as anyone had thought.

I found myself really sucked into the story, into finding out what would happen next and how this book was going to end.  I liked some of the characters, especially Martin and Marijike, but the overall story took too many turns that bothered me towards the end.  I can’t say that the twists weren’t consistent with the characters, but I can’t say that they were either.  I didn’t feel like Niffengegger really got me into their heads and thoughts enough to determine that for myself.  And considering some of the decisions that were made in the last 1/3 of the book, I think I’m just as glad to not be in their heads.  Overall I liked it, I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t love it.  I’m glad it was a library book, because I doubt that I would read it again.

3 thoughts on “Her Fearful Symmetry

  1. So that’s one book I can probably safely pass on! Though I’m starting to worry that I’ve somehow outsourced the reading of all literary fiction to you. Though I do have an excuse.

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