20 December 2021

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I got this book for Christmas last year and had it on my list because it's the second novel by the author who wrote The Time Traveler's Wife, a book that was both hard to read and very enjoyable. I was a bit off-put to hear that this was a 'horror' novel as that's not really my genre but decided to give it a go anyways around Halloween of this year. It was incredibly weird but I still sort of liked it, and I'm happy to report it's definitely not 'horror' by any definition.

This book is about a set of twins named Julia and Valentina who inherit a flat from their estranged aunt Elspeth (their mother's twin) in England but the caveat is that they have to live in it a year first before they can sell it. In the year they spend in England they become very familiar with Elspeth's boyfriend Robert, some of the neighbours, and their late aunt who haunts the apartment as a ghost.

I almost stopped reading this book when the ghost showed up, despite the fact that I was already ~50 pages in. I do not like science fiction stuff, and I especially don't like supernatural elements like ghosts, but I kept on. The book progresses into a Romeo and Juliet type of plot (I promise this is not a spoiler) where Valentina attempts to fake her death so she can move on in her life independent from her twin sister Julia who insists they do everything together. It has a pretty shocking and dark ending. 

Audrey Niffenegger

I think this plot is a bit far-fetched (do you really need to fake your death to assert independence?) but this is also the reason that adult, identical twins really weird me out. I find them sort of creepy the way they operate as extensions of one person and this book especially makes the relationship feel suffocating. I felt like the below passage sort of explains this weird twin-syndrome that makes me uncomfortable:

The twins worried about virginity individually, and they worried about it together. But the most basic problem was one they never talked about: sex was something they couldn't do together. Someone would have to go first, and then the other would be left behind. And they would each have to pick different guys, and these guys, these potential boyfriends, would want to spend time alone with one or the other; they would want to be the important person in Julia or Valentina's life. Each boyfriend would be a crowbar, and soon there would be a gap; there would be hours in the day when Julia wouldn't even know where Valentina was, or what she was doing, and Valentina would turn to tell Julia something and instead there would be the boyfriend, waiting to hear what she was about to say although only Julia would have understood it. ... It was a delicate thing, their private world. It required absolute fidelity, and so they remained virgins, and waited."

Despite the weirdness of the twins and the ghosts and whatever else, I was into this book and story. I found the fake death plot exciting and was eager to read on and see what happened. Niffenegger is also the talented writer I remembered her to be and the imagery is so beautiful. She writes so romantically about death and I think this is a large reason why I would consider this more of a romance than a horror plot, because a different writer totally could have made it the latter.

He was not ready for her absence. No one he loved had died, until Elspeth. Other people were absent, but no one was dead. Elspeth? Even her name seemed empty, as though it had detached itself from her and was floating untethered in his mind. How am I supposed to live without you? It was not a matter of the body; his body would carry on as usual. The problem was located in the word how: he would live, but without Elspeth the flavour, the manner, the method of living were lost to him. He would have to relearn solitude." 

I think this would be a cool read if ghosts are your thing. If they're not and you don't want to persevere because you like the author the way I did, I don't think you'd end up finishing it because it's pretty weird. I would love to discuss this ending with someone though, there's not much more I can say without spoiling it but it'd pretty dark, so let me know if you read it!

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