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Her Fearful Symmetry is an odd book, filled with eclectic characters, many of whom have strange eccentricities that never quite seem to fall into caricature. That’s a good thing. This is the second book by Audrey Niffenegger that I have read. The first was The Time Traveler’s Wife. The horrible and amazing thing about this predicament is the Time Traveler’s Wife happens to sit near the top of My Favorite Book list. This means that Her Fearful Symmetry has the unenviable task of living up to that standard while also meaning I already trust her writing. So, how did does the book read?

The plot is rather straight forward. Elspeth is dead. Her death results in several chain reactions, including a final plan to give her estate to her twin sister, Edie’s, twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. Along the way, we witness the impact on Elspeth’s lover, Robert, her twin sister, an OCD neighbor, Martin, and anyone else who happens to wander into the path of a family conflict. Including, as it turns out, Elspeth’s own ghost, a white kitten, and the keepers of the local cemetery. Sometimes, the dead really just can’t let things lie, even if they aren’t around anymore.

Filled with characters who suffer Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, twin mirror sisters (Julie and Valentina are literal mirror images of one another, emotionally and physically), two more twins who appear to hate one another (Elspeth and Edie), scorned spouses (Edie’s husband, Jack), and lost lovers, I find myself considering how much these people remind me of my best friends. I don’t know if that’s insulting or not, but it happens does have the certain appeal of being true. My best friend include a clean freak, another (despite intelligence that I remain envious of) hasn’t matured past 17, while another is so strict and by-the-book that her actions hold little surprise. These little quirks make my friend both desperately wanting and yet charismatic, are in full force in Her Fearful Symmetry. When I consider the people I know to these fictional beings, I must acknowledge the reality of their existence when compared to my own social circle.

Part of what makes this story so compelling is I find myself wondering what would happen to me if I ever abandoned my twin brother? Would I do the same, inflicting petty vendetta’s against him via the proxy of his children? What could cause such a schism to occur? I can’t imagine it being anything important. No, those issues get resolved. Only the stupid ones ruin my life. What actually caused the strained relationship between Edie and Elspeth is intriguing, though just as stupid. Of the daughters, Julia is most assuredly the dominant twin, while Valentina often goes along, despite having separate wishes. Perhaps, it is more accurate to say that Valentina cannot distinguish her own desires from her sister, and so this dynamic does not make her uncomfortable. Julia seems petulant and rude (very United State’s esk), but this really stems from her comfort with her own sister, the way things have always been, and an inability to move beyond that.

In fact, many of the characters are rather despicable, often thinking rude, cruel, or ill-considered notions about the people they hold dearest. Marijke is clearly in love with Martin but always mentions how talking with him ruins her day. Yet, none of their ugliness seems over the top. These are merely the inner thoughts that many people have regarding ever situation. A husband in Jack who only wants his wife to be simple and not problematic. A wife in Edie who won’t tell her husband anything to cause trouble. Friend gossip behind friends back, none of which is really meant harmfully but remains cruel, none-the-less. Another husband and wife couple, Martin and Marijke, love one another but Marijke can’t stand Martin’s OCD. Martin, meanwhile, acknowledges his problem but cannot fix it. Everyone has issues that are deep and scarring but these flaws only make the characters more relatable.

And yet, they are all in love. In a profound manner, they are all in love. Martin’s description of his love for Marijke is perhaps the most exquisite and painful definition I have ever read.

“Being in love is…anxious,” [Martin] said. “Wanting to please, worrying that she will see me as I really am. But wanting to be known. That is…you’re naked, moaning in the dark, no dignity at all…I wanted her to see me and to love me even though she knew everything I am, and I knew her. Now she’s gone, and my knowledge is incomplete. So all day I imagine what she is doing, what she says and who she talks to, how she looks. I try to supply the missing hours, and it gets harder as they pile up, all the time she’s been gone. I have to imagine.”

Julia sees Martin’s love for his wife and sees a mirror of her own for Valentina. A dark, demented, insane love that cannot be reasoned with, despite knowing it’s existence pulls her apart. While Robert loves Elspeth, loves her and yet loves Valentina, because Valentina is there and Elspeth is not. Edie and Jack, who love one another, yet cannot talk to one another. Their lives are defined by their love. This love is not beautiful, often times evoking sorrow as it comes off the page. Sorrow and sympathy because these characters emotions are, in many ways, unrequited. Each quality that they love is missing within themselves. And that’s a horrible kind of love, and yet, noble, because these characters stay with that love, even knowing the pain it brings.

The irony lies in that their love drives them apart. This love drives their actions, even as they acknowledge that it tears them apart from one another.

Her Fearful Symmetry exhibits a kind of addictive grace. The kind of quality you witness in only a select few. Even, despite my love of the book, the Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t have this kind of delicacy. The Count compares much more favorably to a full feast fit with turkey and beef and potatoes. Her Fearful Symmetry is perhaps more comparable to sushi.

If there exists a single, nagging complaint, it would definitely be the transition between time periods. Certainly, enough information is given that the reader is aware of how much time has passed (months and seasons change) and the characters themselves give context (the twins moving to England in the fall, a reference to when letters regarding Elspeth’s death). Yet, there seems to be a lack of cohesion between these links, almost as if they were tossed in to satisfy a narrative blunder that Niffenegger didn’t feel bothered to correct. All the pieces in between function fabulously, just their transitions are harder to ignore. This might have been easier to live with if Niffenegger has not already shown a wonderful talent for establishing shifts between desperate time periods in the Time Traveler’s Wife.

The thing about Her Fearful Symmetry is that, like another favorite book, The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan, this book does a great job of showing how people handle death and the end. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who studies the concepts of death and dying. How Elspeth’s death and life shape those she knew and didn’t know is a central theme. The memories of her still living lover, as he tries to move on, to her sister’s spite at her death. Here, death is not the end of the journey, but the start of one.

This is a great story. Certainly, not predictable. every layer reveals something new about character motivations. Certainly, some of the plot twists could be seen coming (and by plot twist I don’t mean the bastardization that M. Night Shyamalan visits upon movies, I mean developments in the story) but they are masked by other events. In the end, it’s a good read. Not perfect by any means, it is well written, gripping, and a cut above many other books. The subject matter, on ghosts and love and what really does to people, may offset readers. Be aware of that.

Her Fearful Symmetry is worth reading.

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