Review of “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffenegger

Note: There are no spoilers in this review.

It’s probably good that I’m one of the last people in the universe to read and review this book, because unlike many others, I didn’t actually like it very much.

The story concerns two twins, Julia and Valentina, twenty-years old (although often mistaken for twelve). They are small, undernourished, they dress alike, and they are more than just identical: they are mirror-image twins. That is, every cell in each body is symmetrical with each cell in the other’s body:

“The marvel was most evident in X-rays: while Julia was organized in the usual way, Valentina was internally reversed. Her heart was on her right side, with all its ventricles and chambers inverted. …”

The mother of the twins was herself a twin, but the girls never saw their aunt. When the aunt died of leukemia, they received a will indicating they were to inherit her flat in London, but there were stipulations: they had to wait a year, and they could not let their parents visit. They complied.

In the flat in London, they live on the floor between two other neighbors. Below them lives Robert, who had been involved with their Aunt Elspeth. The upstairs neighbor is Martin, a victim of severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) whose wife Marijke had left him, unable to put up with his compulsions any longer. Valentina gets involved with Robert, so Julia befriends Martin. But Julia doesn’t really want to be separated from Valentina, so Valentina hatches an escape plan.

Discussion: Ghosts and symmetries of all sorts play significant roles in the plot. It also seems to be assumed that readers will ruminate on the nature of life and death, life after death, good versus evil, love, and identity, since these issues are overdrawn with an obviousness just shy of heavy-handedness. But in my opinion, the injection of supernatural elements into the plot militates against serious contemplation of these issues.

Evaluation: It’s hard to define what I didn’t like about this book. To start with the characters, I didn’t like the twins, nor their mother or aunt. I felt impatient with the character of Robert, who was weak and easily manipulated. Martin was perhaps the best-drawn character, but his OCD was exasperating. The double ending (yet another symmetrical plot occurrence) was doubly dissatisfying: quickly resolved with many questions unanswered, as if the editor had said, “Alright! Let’s wrap it up now!”

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Scribner, 2009


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26 Responses to Review of “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffenegger

  1. Sandy says:

    People have been all over the board with this one. I don’t remember another book that has inspired so much dislike and so much love. I was on the love end. I thought it was clever, with interesting characters (can’t say I loved any of them, but I don’t need to). I had this book on my mind long after I finished it, which means something to me. But there are just as many people on your end of the spectrum as well. Did it help that I hadn’t read Time Traveler’s Wife? I don’t know, but I aim to get to that one sometime next year!

  2. JoAnn says:

    I am fascinated by the blogger reviews of this book – they are truly all over the spectrum! I do plan to read it – maybe when the paperback comes out. Think it’ll be in time for Halloween next year?

  3. bermudaonion says:

    The reviews for this book are all over the place. As of right now, I’ve decided it ‘s probably not the book for me, but I do reserve the right to change my mind at any time.

  4. nomadreader says:

    You’re not the only one who didn’t like it. I was not a fan at all, despite the beauty of Niffenegger’s writing. I’m fascinated by the variety of reviews on blogs and at amazon. Even among the bloggers whose tastes usually align with mine, there is great disparity!

  5. Lisa says:

    My opinion on whether or not to read to read this changes with every review I read! I guess I’m going to have to give it a try but I’m so going to wish I had listened to you if I don’t like it!

  6. Steph says:

    It’s funny because almost every review I’ve read of this book (at least five now) has started off by saying that while most people really enjoyed this book, said reviewer did not! By my estimation this is a book that hardly anyone seems to really like! I personally wasn’t a huge fan of Niffenegger’s first book, and based on what I’ve read about this one, I won’t be rushing out to read her second novel.

  7. claire says:

    I also won’t be rushing out to read this one, based on my experience with The Time Traveler’s Wife. While that one I liked enough for its plot, I didn’t appreciate its writing and have not been compelled to read anything else by her.

  8. Marie says:

    I love your series, “Probable Last Person…” Brilliant. As for the book, well, let’s just say I haven’t read it either and based on my reaction to Time Traveler’s Wife I’ll probably be the ONLY person in the universe to skip it completely! I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you but I appreciate your review! 🙂

  9. Toni Gomez says:

    Great reviews aren’t always positive. This was great! I still want to read this one.. well you know.. just to see. Thanks. LOVE the series Probable Last Person… seems to fit me well these days with my reading slump.

  10. Staci says:

    I loved this one!! LOL!! But I agree with you…I couldn’t stand the twins. Their togetherness was “weird” to the extreme. I mean if I was a twin I’m sure we would be close but 21 and holding hands…I don’t think so!!!

  11. I haven’t read this one and probably won’t. I prefer to read books with very likable people in them.

  12. caite says:

    I may have like it a bit more than you…I think I gave it 3 stars on Library Thing. I have not read The Time Travelers Wife yet and am not too terribly anxious to now.
    I agree that Martin is the most likable character, maybe the only one. Personally I found his OCD interesting.

  13. Tricia says:

    I completely agree with your comment:

    “It also seems to be assumed that readers will ruminate on the nature of life and death, life after death, good versus evil, love, and identity, since these issues are overdrawn with an obviousness just shy of heavy-handedness.”

    When reading this novel, I often felt like I was being spoon fed! My experience reading HFS compared to TTTW was so different it was hard to believe that both novels were written by the same author.

  14. I was supposed to get this as an ARC, but never did. I guess I didn’t miss much. I don’t need another book that I can’t get through. I trust your judgement.

  15. Jenners says:

    Well, I believe I read this before you but I still haven’t gotten around to writing my review as I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I felt about it … plus I’ve been taking a bit of a blogging break and am just terribly behind in writing reviews. The other day, I did jot down some notes after I had a “Eureka” moments in the shower about the book and what bothered me. I’ll get to it someday!

  16. jovenus says:

    Like you, I didn’t like the book. With the publication of this book I begin to doubt if TTTW’s success is a fluke.

    my review:

  17. Ann says:

    I did enjoy this book, although I quite agree about the characters, there were very few that I liked. I didn’t think that the premise worked as well as that behind ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ but I loved the settings she evoked and the glimpses of the life behind the Cemetery.

  18. BooksPlease says:

    I disliked The Time Traveller’s Wife, but had wondered whether to read this one to see if it was any better. I’m glad I haven’t bought it now. If I see it at the library I’ll have a look at it, but otherwise I won’t bother.

  19. Just found your review of this. It’s quite similar to mine actually. So glad to find someone else who disliked it.

    My review:

  20. Rita K says:

    Haven’t read it – and now I think I will not bother. Thanks for reviewing it!

  21. Sasha says:

    Wow. Does it make me a mean person that it makes me happy that you didn’t like this book? Because, well, I really hated it. Gah.

    Here are my thoughts, if you’re so inclined. 🙂

  22. Greg Z says:

    …probably a telling sign for the generally perceived quality of a book that you can now get it on amazon for about $7….Too bad – I met Niffenegger at TTTW, and thought she was awesome. I may wait for her next book though.

    Cool blog, too! I’m following you now, and looking forward to reading what you have to say.


  23. Esme says:

    This is on my wish list.

  24. Biblibio says:

    I suspect I’m one of those who entirely disliked “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (and while I understand why certain readers liked it, it was far far far from my cup of tea), so I sympathize and understand your plight. Sometimes popular books aren’t good matches with certain readers. And it’s okay.

  25. Pingback: Her Fearful Symmetry « Care's Online Book Club

  26. Pingback: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger « Regular Rumination

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