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Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger, Scribner, 2009, 406 pp.

I adored The Time Traveler’s Wife when I read it a few years ago, and I found Audrey Niffenegger to be a brilliant, intricate storyteller. When I saw her second novel on the library shelf, I grabbed it greedily. Her Fearful Symmetry was dramatically different than The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it did not disappoint.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a dark and sophisticated ghost story, set in the neighborhood and backdrop of London’s Highgate Cemetery. Although the novel is contemporary, the setting is so Victorian that I frequently found myself startled at references to cell phones, e-mail and modern life. The novel takes place after the death of Elspeth Noblin, who has left her London flat and all her estate to her nieces, daughters of her twin sister Edie, and twins themselves. The twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, have never met their aunt, and their mother refuses to discuss the separation. They are only 21, and they are developing their adult identity and negotiating separate lives as twins. In order to claim their inheritance, they must come and live in the flat for a year. There they meet Elspeth’s neighbors, including her lover Robert, a reclusive Martin suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Highgate Cemetery and its residents. As the story unfolds, the girls get to know their aunt Elspeth as well—and not just through the eyes of others. The haunting of this tale slowly turns darker and more monstrous.

The story tells of love and death and love beyond death, of the intermingling of the souls of twins and lovers, of the possibility of healing and hope. To tell more might be to give too much away, and this novel is too good to spoil. Read it and enjoy it. I’ll have to eagerly await Niffenegger’s next offering.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, Harcourt, 2003, 546 pages.

I’m not big on romance novels, so this book did not attract my attention for a long time. Its billing as a love story made me think of fawning girls, juicy kisses, pining hearts and all that other mushy stuff—not anything to hold my interest. Finally, a trusted friend who knows my taste gave me a recommendation, and I was desperate for something escapist to read quickly during vacation. This was a great choice.

This book is a lot more than mushy love stuff. It is an amazingly well-crafted intersection of two lives, one of which does not move chronologically. Henry DeTamble is a time traveler, against his will, and his life intersects with Clare Abshire from the time he is twenty years old. However, because of his time travel, those intersections take place from the time Clare is six years old into her adulthood. Because their lives are so intertwined, neither Clare nor Henry hold the entire story of their lives—they each only know parts and pieces, and their partner must forever be helping them by giving them the whole picture.

Throughout the novel, I kept comparing their unusual relationship to a more traditional one, and I see connections everywhere. I think all of our relationships, especially those that continue over many years, help us to fill out our memory and understanding of life’s events. J and I have been married for 13 years (tomorrow!), and we act as mirrors and memories for one another. One of the greatest gifts of marriage is to have a witness to your life. We go through things together, and we see each other change and grow. We remember our younger selves, and hold on to pieces of memory and self for one another. This is not so different from Henry and Clare.

The novel itself is a beautiful, intricate construction. Niffenegger somehow manages to assemble all the pieces of their lives—Clare’s chronological movement with Henry’s jumping about—into a cohesive whole. No detail or element of plot is irrelevant or neglected. The author deftly winds up every loose detail into a complete and satisfying story and ending. There is a sense of genius in the construction.

Most importantly, though, I just enjoyed reading it. I read the whole thing in 24 hours, and enjoyed every minute of it. I loved all the characters, and wanted to spend more time in their world. It was a great escape novel, with enough to keep the mind churning after turning the last page.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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