Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveller’s Wife is one of my favourite books, and so I was very excited about the release of Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel.

Her Fearful Symmetry is set in London and focuses on a set of mirror twins who inherit a flat from their aunt, which overlooks Highgate Cemetery. The twins are excited about moving to England, but wonder what secrets lie within their family’s past. Through meeting the  friends of their deceased aunt, they begin to build a picture of her, and slowly realise that the ghost of their aunt still lives in her flat.

I loved the first third of the book – the tension was built up amazingly well; the emotion equal to that she achieved in The Time Traveller’s Wife. Unfortunately the emotion failed to be maintained throughout the rest of the book. The plot took over, and although I enjoyed reading it, the special emotional tension I love was lacking. I didn’t really care about the twins and although I loved the ghostly aunt, I found that I couldn’t really engage with her either.

I also felt that parts of the book were over researched. I know that Highgate Cemetery is a fascinating place, but if I wanted to know everything about it then I’d go on a tour. Audrey Niffengger did an admirable job of writing the entire book in British English, but I wonder if she went too far. I’d love to know whether people from other parts of the world were mystified by some of the obscure references to specific UK personalities/products (which I also think will date the book very quickly).

I am being a bit harsh. The Time Traveller’s Wife was such an amazing book, my expectations were probably too high. Her Fearful Symmetry does have a very good plot and the settings are meticulously described. It is a gentle, mildly spooky ghost story, which will appeal to fans of The Little Stranger – the perfect book for Halloween.




Did you enjoy Her Fearful Symmetry or are you looking forward to reading it?

Did you prefer Her Fearful Symmetry or The Little Stranger?

69 replies on “Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger”

I’m looking forward to reading this, but I’m trying not to have unreasonably high expectations. From the reviews I’ve seen so far, most people seen to agree that it’s a very good book, but not as amazing as TTW.

Nymeth, I try to avoid reading reviews before I’ve read the book (if I know I’m going to read it very soon). Perhaps I should actually read them so my expectations are lowered.

I just posted my review on this, and I feel the same as you. I didn’t go into it with a comparison to TTW…I was just looking forward to a supernatural plot with deep character and relationship development. I ended up not caring about any character except for Martin. It seems like the supernatural took precedence over the humanity in this one.

Kari, I had a bit more empathy for Robert than the rest of the characters, but I didn’t feel he had been fully developed either. Perhaps the problem was that there were too many characters in this book, so we don’t get a chance to know any of them properly.

All the reviews I have read have had a somewhat less-than-amazing view of HFS. :/ I guess it’s the whole second novel complex. I think I’ll have to try to wait a while before picking it up 🙂

I’m glad you did enjoy parts of it though!

She, I think it does suffer from second novel complex – especially since her first one was so amazing. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it a bit more once the hype has gone down.

As you know, I didn’t really love TTW, so I wasn’t intending to read this one. But then I started to get into the mood for spooky ghost stories (as one does when October hits, I suspect), so I thought maybe it would be worth a try. But now you have said it felt over researched, and I really hate that in my fiction! I enjoyed parts of The Historian, which started out very strong, but then it began to drag horribly and to read as though it were someone’s dissertation. I suspect this is not so bad here, but I am now back to being uncertain as to whether I’ll read this one. I may, but I probably won’t rush to do so.

Steph, I felt the same way as you did about The Historian and while HFS didn’t have the length to get into thesis mode I did feel there were too many facts for something that is a light ghost story. HFS never dragged – it just irritated me in places. I’d love to know your thoughts on this one, so I do hope you read it at some point.

I hated TTW, and didn’t particularly like her novel in pictures (the Three Incestuous Sisters) either, so I’m not even going to bother with this one. Particularly as I’ve seen a lot of reviews like this one that say it just isn’t as good.

Amanda, I’m sorry to hear that you hated TTW. I haven’t read her picture books – I’ll have to get one soon. I think you are probably wise to avoid this one in that case.

I’m a little less than halfway through this book. Maybe it is to my advantage that I haven’t read TTW yet, I don’t know. My expectations were actually pretty low, because this book has been skewered all over the place. And so far, I’m enjoying it. You are right, it is subtle, like The Little Stranger, but very pleasant to read so far. My only issue may be that I’m reading this one, and The Little Stranger was an audio experience. Two totally different beasts, I think.

Sandy, I am pleased that you are enjoying it and will be interested in your thoughts of the ending. I think pleasant is a good word for this book. It is a nice distracting read, but I don’t think it will be loved in 50 years time.

Oh no would you really put it along side The Little Stranger hahaha? I really, really enjoyed this book, I just desperately tried to imagine I had never read The Time Travellers Wife so as not to compare but in some ways you can’t help it. Have you been to Highgate… you must… and a certain someone you may know may be guiding there soon lol.

Simon, I think I had a very similar reaction to this and Little Stranger. Both were enjoyable ghost stories, but disappointing after the previous masterpieces the authors had written.

I have never been to Highgate, but would love to at some point. Perhaps you’ll be able to give me a tour one day!

Well Jackie you know I loved this but I do agree with you that it lacked the emotional heart that The Time Traveler’s Wife did. I also thought a lot of the very specific ‘look I researched British culture!’ references will date quickly – if read in a hundred years time it will need a lot of footnotes from a social historian!

I am sad you didn’t adore it as much as I did though – I think it’s been my favourite read this year so far…exacerbated by the excitement of seeing Audrey in the flesh last night!!

Rachel, I think Americans will need those footnotes now, let alone in 100 years time!

I think the book was made more special by seeing AN, but I really hope her next one is better. I have my doubts about the hair though…

diane, I’m not a fan of time travel stories, but I don’t think you should avoid TTW for that reason. It is very different and emotion is at the heart of the story. I am sure you’ll love it, so please give it a chance!

This sounds interesting, Jackie, I enjoyed your review. I really couldn’t get into TTW and never finished it, which makes me feel as if I should flog myself daily for being such a useless reader especially as almost every person I know adored it, but, this story appeals to me much more and is now on my list. Thank you.

Kim, Don’t worry about it. Everyone has different taste in books and it is quite hard to get into. I hope you enjoy this one a bit more.

Both HFS and The Little Stranger fell a little short for me. I was fed up with ALL of the characters by the time I reached the end (of both books). I did find the ghost premise in HFS more intriguing than the haunted house aspect of TLS.

I have not read TTW yet, so I read this one with no expectations. Which was good, because I was not thrilled with it. One of my big problems was a lot a very odd, selfish, unlikable characters…not a good thing.

Caite, I agree with you. The characters weren’t very likeable – the twins especially. They should have been centre stage, but I had little empathy for them.

I don’t think you are being harsh at all Jackie! It sounds like your views on the book are pretty similar to mine too. I just didn’t engage with either sets of twins at all – I would go so far to say that I really didn’t like them! On the other hand I loved her writing style and the descriptions of London and Highgate. I started reading the book when I was in London but I finished reading it when I got back to Australia and I think it created a connection for me – I really didn’t want to leave London!!!

Karen, I didn’t really like them either!

I’m pleased this book helped to connect you with London. I’m sure that it wouldn’t have had the same effect on you had you read it all at home. I look forward to reading your review.

I totally understand why your expectations were so high. Time Traveller’s wife was an amazing book. But you have given it 4 stars anyway 🙂

I cannot wait to read this book.

“Audrey Niffengger did an admirable job of writing the entire book in British English”

I haven’t read the book, although I have it in the queue, so I’m not sure what you mean by the comment that it’s written in British English. Do you mean she used a spell check to change the American spellings into British spellings? 😉

If that’s the case, I’d like to see her write something in Australian English, because some words are spelt the British way and some are spelt the American way.

kimbofo, I went to hear Audrey Niffenegger talk about writing her book and the main point she wanted to make was that she had written it in British English. It had apparently taken her years to get the sentence structure, slang and spellings correct. I didn’t realise this was what she had done when I read it, but I did notice the obscure references to British personalities. I think she was trying too hard, so the writing didn’t flow as naturally as it could have done.

I am sure she could write in Australian English given another few years of research, but I think you’d find some of the Australian references strange too.

I definitely preferred this to The Little Stranger – I expect because I liked the characters in HFS better. And as well, The Little Stranger didn’t feel like Sarah Waters (the Sarah Waters I know and love!), whereas HFS definitely felt like Audrey Niffenegger. I found that disappointing too.

Jenny, I think I prefer this to the Little Stranger too, but I’m not sure – it is very close. I think I prefered the characters in the Little Stranger – they weren’t more likable, but I felt they were better developed. If you ask me another day I might give you a different answer though!

I found the first 100 pages or so of HFS to be a bit slow but once I got into the story, I was completely enthralled. I loved it. It has been so long since I read TTW that I can’t say with full certaintly that I liked it less than TTW, but I think I did.

Stephanie, It sounds as though we had very different feelings on the book. I thought the first 100 pages were the best! It is stange that we loved different things about it, but I love finding that sort of thing out.

anothercookiecrumbles, I think you’d find this better than TTW, but it won’t be one of your favourites, so missing it might be a good idea.

I want to read this one! It’s funny that you think she over-researches London because now that I think about it, that’s probably true about Time Traveler’s Wife, too. She makes so many references to Chicago in there, but I loved those because I live in Chicago, too 🙂 Will have to check this one out and see how it goes.

Aarti, I don’t remember there being a large number of references to Chicago. I’ll have to read TTW again at some point and see if I spot them all. Perhaps they were important for someone who doesn’t know the area, but because I know London I found them unnecessary?

Jen, I often read about people mentioned in books and wonder if they are real – I suppose that it doesn’t really have any bearing on the plot, but they jarred with me because I recognised them and thought it was weird to include such obscure references.

I enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry more than The Little Stranger. Both were suspenseful but HFS was most definitely a ghost story whilst TLS wasn’t: it was a pscyhological vs supernatural study of phenomenon, which manifested as a haunted house. The comparison is a good one though as both employ Hundreds Hall and Highgate Cemetery as characters in the novel so the reader feels as if they have actually been there. As I said in my Tour of Highgate Cemetery post, AN knew a lot about Highgate Cemetery and put it in the book but her research didn’t come across as dry -or as detrimental to the plot- as Sarah Waters’ did for me.
HFS will certainly date more; the product placement and mention of supermarket names certainly jarred for me at first and already some of her information about London is already out of date (the Eurostar travelling from Waterloo), which is unfortunate. Also, I think there are probably more American-British anachronisms that I didn’t notice (being British) than just the chicken noodle soup I mentioned on Tuesday night (and that was brought to my attention by an American).
I found HFS engaging and enjoyable; it’s a good story and deserving of four stars but it won’t remain with me a one of my all-time favourites.

Claire, I love the way that both authors treat spooky places as characters in their books. I don’t remember there being too much research in TLS. Which part are you refering to?

I did think there was too much information about Highgate in the book. She put a whole tour in there – not just the beautiful descriptions of it. I guess everyone has a different tolerance level for that sort of thing though.

I didn’t notice the Eurostar mention. That really should have been changed before publication as it has been going from Waterloo for a while now.

It is a good story, but it will be lucky to make my top ten for 2009, let alone become my favourite of all time.

The period research; I found the sheer amount of detail that Sarah Waters put into the period setting to be overwhelming and subsequently dry.

The trains now leave from St Pancras International but she wrote Waterloo.

Claire, Oh – St Pancras is at Waterloo – I would always say that when getting the Eurostar. I thought she’d put Kings Cross. That shows the detail of her research. Perhaps Londoners would say St Pancras, but people outside London don’t know it that well, so say Waterloo as most people know where that is. Interesting question. I think I’ll twitter it and see what people put.

I didn’t have any problem with the period research in TLS. The Children’s Book on the other hand….!!

Now I am completely confused because St Pancras International is at King’s Cross (tube station is King’s Cross – St Pancras and covers both stations) and the Eurostar moved there from Waterloo in 2007.

Claire, Sorry for the confusion. It is caused by the fact I have no idea where St Pancras is! She should have written Kings Cross! I agree that Waterloo should never have been in the book that is years out of date.

It’s okay; I think the confusion lies in the fact that the tube station is Kings Cross – St Pancras but they are actually two different stations; when I said “at Kings Cross” I meant geographically beside it and you thought I meant same station (I think).

Jackie, this was a great review of a book that I was even more disappointed in than you were. I loved TTW, but once I got to know these characters, I didn’t care for them at all. In fact, I just read Karen’s comment above and I totally agree with her–I don’t think you were too harsh and I disliked both sets of twins!

Sue, I disliked both sets of twins too, although there were points when I had a little sympathy for Elspeth. I’m pleased that you agree with me and hope her next book is more emotional.

I pretty much agree with your assessment of the book. I knew going in that it couldn’t possibly be “as good” as Time Traveler’s Wife (and it wasn’t) but she is still a delightful and talented writer but I shared many of your problems with the book — I just didn’t fall in love with anybody.

Jenners, It is a great book though and she remains one of my favourite authors – I will rush out to get her next one as I have faith in the quality of her writing.

I really enjoyed TTW, however reading Her Fearful Symmetry I found that I had to force myself to finish the book. I usually like reading a book to the end as i’m quite a naturally inquisitive (or nosy as some people say) and like to know what happens at the end. In this I didn’t really seem that bothered about whether I found out about the characters or now.

This is such a shame as I really did enjoy TTW, maybe I should go back and reread that book instead of wanting the same thing in another of her projects.

judealudel, It is sad not liking this one when you love the first book so much. I think rereading TTW is a great idea – but there are lots of other fantastic books out there, so perhaps you should seek them out as well?!

well I have started Wolf Hall (I know you didn’t get on with it) but I like to have 2 books on the go, different tone/ theme/ genre to allow myself a choice depending on moods. SInce WOlf Hall is quite heavy I may just start on something a little lighter (TTW would not fall under that category) 🙂

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