Book Review: Audrey Niffenegger's HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY

This review was really difficult for me to write because I desperately wanted to like this book. I’ve been waiting six years for it, squealed with joy when I received it, and approached it with as much affection as one can muster towards an inanimate object.

Unfortunately, I found Audrey Niffenegger‘s Her Fearful Symmetry to be a disappointment, and not because I was so in love with her debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. In fact, I think it’d be unfair to compare this to that so I shall judge Symmetry strictly on its own merits.

The story begins with Elspeth dying from leukemia in London and bequeathing her flat to her nieces, Julia and Valentina Poole, twins who live in America with Edie, Elspeth’s own twin. The girls come to London and immediately get tangled in the lives of Elspeth’s neighbors, including Martin, a shut-in who suffers from OCD; and Robert, who had been Elspeth’s younger lover. They also share their space with Elspeth’s ghost, whom only Valentina can see.

As they explore their newfound independence and adulthood, Valentina starts longing for a life separate from her sister, who insists they must do everything together. Valentina gets extra impetus when she falls for Robert and senses her sister’s resentment of the situation. Valentina’s plan for escape from Julia has disturbing results with an O. Henryesque twist at the end.

One of my struggles with this book was to get past the first 300 pages or so, where not much happens while the twins get acclimated to London and acquainted with their new neighbors. They tour Highgate Cemetery, go to museums and look at jars of organs and dodo skeletons, learn how to use the tube, etc. Note the following samples from the book:

Days went by and nothing much happened.

Exactly. And this:

I’m bored, Julia decided. It was no fun to be bored alone. Julia looked around, but found nothing worth looking at or thinking about.

Me, neither. This is from p. 287.

But then Valentina puts in motion her plot to escape and things get really complicated in the last 100 pages. Niffenegger deserves credit for coming up with a wildly imaginative idea but I couldn’t understand why Valentina wouldn’t choose a much easier way out. I’m all for paranormal and dark and twisted but it has to make some sense.

The end results would be really tragic if it weren’t for my other big problem with the book: I didn’t really care about the characters. I couldn’t find an adequate guide to take me through this fantastical story. Robert, mourning Elspeth and unable to complete his thesis, is stuck in a rut with no real plan to get out of it. Likewise the obsessive-compulsive Martin. Though I’m sympathetic towards OCD sufferers because I’m very close to a few people who have it, scenes about Martin repeatedly scrubbing his floors and hoarding newspapers don’t make gripping fiction.

Because we never get a full glimpse of the relationship between Robert and Elspeth before she died, her yearning for him as a ghost feels superficial, stemming more from a desire for physical contact than deep romantic love. As for the twins, Julia is bossy and Valentina is weak, in spirit and body (she’s asthmatic). Their exclusive twin-ness and otherwordly vibe—with their almost-white hair and propensity to dress all in white—keep them at arm’s length from other characters and the reader.

The one good thing I got from Symmetry was a comforting vision of the afterlife. I recently lost a friend to cancer so this is no small gift. Niffenegger posits that the soul lives on after death and if we open our minds to this possibility, we can visit and co-exist with our departed loved ones in a non-spooky way. Yes, being a ghost can be lonely but the ending suggests that rapture can also be found.

Nerd verdict: Fearful disappoints but has moments of grace

NOTE: Head over to Niffenegger’s website to see her striking artwork and photos of Highgate Cemetery, where she worked as a tour guide.



  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    September 28, 2009 at 12:52 am

    Frankly, I’m relieved not to add another book to my list of PCN Recommendations. 🙂

  • Reply
    September 28, 2009 at 9:53 am

    It was with great reluctance that I read Time Traveller’s Wife, but I was pleasantly surprised. I’m glad you didn’t compare the two books. Books should stand on their own unless intended as a sequel/prequel. Too bad about this book, but maybe some wise young producer/director will see a way to cut out the boring parts and turn it into yet another Final Destination horror movie. (just kidding, we don’t need that)

    • Reply
      June 26, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      I have never read TTW, but Her Fearful Symmetry has been honestly one of the best books i’ve ever read. She brings every kind of emotion into the book and the part three in the book is so rewarding. I would recommend this book to anyone, it’s a keeper.

      • Reply
        Andrea Mickelson
        October 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

        I loved Her Fearful Symmetry! It is one of my all time favorite books. I couldn’t wait to get home everyday just so I could read it!!

  • Reply
    September 28, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Unfortunately, this is basically what I have been hearing about Her Fearful Symmetry.

    Do you think this is some second book slump?

  • Reply
    September 28, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Dang, I hadn’t even read Time Traveller’s Wife yet. You guys are way ahead of me.

  • Reply
    September 28, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Thanks for the review, but I will probably read it anyway. I LOVED Time Traveller’s Wife and even liked the movie, so I’m gonna give it the benefit of the doubt.

    I usually agree with you though, PCN, so don’t be hard on me if I come back to say you were right.

  • Reply
    September 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Sounds like something along the lines of The Lovely Bones, but not as fast paced. Is that a correct analogy?

  • Reply
    September 28, 2009 at 8:44 pm to GoogleReader!
    Thank you

  • Reply
    September 29, 2009 at 5:56 am

    See, and I really loved the first three quarters of the book. I found them exceptionally moody and alluring. It was the events leading up to the ending that lost me. I liked it a bit more than you did but I agree that it’s not as amazing as I’d hoped. I fear that she overthought it a tick.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Hm… thanks for the honest review! I’ve heard great things but I’ve also heard these thoughts as well.

  • Reply
    October 8, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Well, I trust you on this, PCN, but it’s a shame if the book is disappointing.
    Yet the plot sound interesting, especially to me (I have a twin sister and we’re quite close to each other).
    Then, the right thing to do for those who have not read Niffenegger’s previous novel yet is to focus on that one! ‘Cause yes, “The time traveller’s wife” is a great novel indeed! Thank you again PCN for this much valuable recommendation!

    I spent some very nice weeks living with Henry and Clare! I must confess I had some trouble at the beginning with understanding the chronology (I couldn’t get it why Henry and Clare’s age gap was never the same, oops!), but in fact it was more simple than I thought!
    Anyway, the story is captivating and you really get attached to the characters. Some scenes are really poetic and touching, and the whole thing is a masterpiece I think!
    I lent the book to my roommate and she was thrilled too!

    Here in France, the movie adaptation is due to be released in theatres at the end of November (while the book’s title has been translated as “Le temps n’est rien” = “Time is nothing”, the film’s title is “Hors du temps” = “Out of time”). I’ve heard good things and bad things about it, but I will probably go and form my own opinion!

  • Reply
    October 21, 2009 at 1:26 am

    I had pretty much the same response, which made me sad. It didn’t even feel like the same writer as TTTW. The way it was written (as you showed with your examples) was painful at times. I was so disappointed by it.

  • Reply
    Craig McGill
    November 1, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Add me to the list of the disappointed (warning spoilers in the comments section but not the review):

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      November 1, 2009 at 9:48 pm

      Hi Craig, and welcome.

      I think there are more disappointed fans than not since the book’s sales are disappointing.

  • Reply
    November 25, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    I found this book to be a complete and utter waste of time. I made it half way through the book and then just gave up. I never read The Time Traveler’s Wife but I have hard that this author is brilliant. Although her writing style is interesting, I thought this book was boring, lacked compelling characters and hard to read. I was disappointed that an author who is so popular could fail so miserably with a second novel. Sorry to be harsh, but this book is awful.

  • Reply
    Ellen Biancaniello
    August 25, 2010 at 6:11 am

    I just finished the book and have one question – how did Elspeth/Valentina alter her appearance so significantly to persuade Julia that she was NOT Valentina? If that was answered, I missed it entirely – and I reread the ending twice.

    As per the comments of others, buying into the paranormal took an enormous leap of faith (and incredible benefit of the doubt, due to loving “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) – but this last bit, in my mind, needed a more rational explanation.

    I also found it quite unbelievable that Robert, given his childhood, would abandon his own child.

    All in all, will await the third novel and hope for another great read like the first one.

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