Her Fearful Symmetry
Front cover of the first edition
|Cover artist||Chris Frazer Smith
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|Pages||304 pp (first edition)|
The novel's title is inspired by "The Tyger", a poem by the English poet William Blake, which begins "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?".
Considering the setting of the novel, some critics have also pointed out a potential verbal pun in the novel's title, since in received pronunciation "symmetry" and "cemetery" are almost homophonous.
Elspeth, the aunt of two young identical twins (Julia and Valentina), dies of leukemia, leaving them her apartment which is located beside Highgate cemetery in London. The twins are Americans, having lived in Illinois with their mother, Edwina, who is Elspeth's twin sister. Edwina and Elspeth have not spoken for many years. The reason for the rift between them is a secret and is not explained to the girls. The girls have always done everything together with Julia being the more dominant twin. They move to London and take up residence in the flat. Valentina has asthma and has a heart valve that hasn't been properly formed, making her slightly ill.
Robert, Elspeth's lover, lives in the apartment below and Martin, a man whose wife, Marijke, has left him because of his obsessive compulsive disorder lives in the apartment above. Robert works as a tour guide in the cemetery as a way of learning more for his thesis on the cemetery. Valentina begins falling in love with Robert. Robert also falls in love with her mainly due to her similarity to Elspeth.
Julia befriends Martin and secretly begins giving him Anafranil (a pill for OCD), pretending that it is a vitamin. Martin is aware that she is giving him the medication, but he lets her think he doesn't know.
Unnoticeable to anybody for the first year, Elspeth is trapped in her apartment as a ghost; invisible and mute. However, Valentina finds that she is aware of Elspeth's moods and one day, Valentina begins to see Elspeth in the apartment. The twins find a white kitten near the cemetery and name it the little kitten of death. They attempt to trap it by leaving food and milk on the balcony, but the kitten refuses to come inside. Elspeth finally catches the kitten by enticing it to the apartment with string.
Elspeth and Valentina are playing with the kitten one day and Valentina sees the kitten drop dead onto the floor. They figure out that the kitten's soul has been caught on Elspeth's hand. Elspeth puts the kitten's soul back into its body and bring it back to life.
A recurring theme throughout the story is Valentina's discontent with being one half of a whole (her twinship with Julia). She is the weaker twin both physically and emotionally. Julia calls her "Mouse" because of her fearful attitude toward everything. As the story progresses, Valentina becomes stronger emotionally and decides that she must break away from Julia if she is ever to really be able to live her life.
Valentina asks Elspeth to take out her soul so that everybody will think that she has died. She tells Robert of her plan and asks him to freeze and preserve her body and then for Elspeth to put her soul back into her body so that she will be free to live her life without Julia. Julia will assume she is dead and Valentina will go on with a new life minus Julia. Robert is aghast at the plan and refuses to participate. He decides to read the diaries and letters that Elspeth left him when she died.
He finds out that there was no rift between Edie and Elspeth, but rather a secret they shared that made it impossible for them to be together again: The woman Robert knows as Elspeth is actually Edie and the woman everyone knows as Edie is actually Elspeth. The real Edie is the mother of Julia and Valentina.
When Edie was engaged to Jack (an American working in London at the time), she was insecure about his love for her so she started pretending to be Elspeth and made advances toward Jack to test him. Jack knew that she was not Edie, but he played along. On April Fool's Day, Jack and Edie got drunk at a party and Jack slept with her and she became pregnant with the twins. Jack did not know he had slept with Edie because he was too drunk to remember it. Elspeth marries Jack, but it's Edie who moves to America with him, and has the twins - Julia and Valentina. When the girls are four months old, Edie brings them to London, and Elspeth and Edie switch places. They thought Jack didn't know about the deception, but he did.
Later, Valentina, Robert and Elspeth enact the plan to remove Valentina's soul from her body. Valentina's soul is removed and held by Elspeth. They make it look as if an asthma attack killed Valentina. Julia discovers the body and is devastated. Edie and Jack come to London from America and a funeral is held with Valentina's coffin being interred in the family mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery. In the late evening on the day of the funeral, Robert removes the body from the coffin and takes it to the flat so Elspeth can place Valentina's soul back into her body. Valentina's soul hovers over the body and Robert sees the body begin to move and life flow through it once more.
He takes Valentina to his flat, and discovers that the soul inside Valentina is Elspeth. Elspeth tells Robert that Valentina wouldn't go back into her own body and just dispersed when she let her go. Elspeth decided to take over her the body after she realized Valentina wasn't going to go back inside it.
Valentina becomes a ghost trapped inside the apartment, getting stronger day by day. Julia continues to live in the apartment in the hopes of being close to Valentina and one day seeing her as Valentina had seen Elspeth. Valentina and Julia do end up being able to communicate, and Valentina figures out how to leave the apartment (she has to go inside of a person's mouth and that person has to let her go). Julia takes Valentina's spirit into her mouth along with the spirit of the Kitten, goes outside, lets her out and weeps for her lost sister. Valentina goes to the mausoleum and sees that her coffin is empty. She then meets the ghost of a little girl from 19th-century England who takes her to meet other spirits. Large crows show up and the spirits shrink and get on the crows to ride them over the city as they fly. Valentina, holding the Kitten in her arms, realizes that she is finally free and happy.
Later, Julia goes upstairs because she hears footsteps; Martin had just left a few days ago to meet Marijke in Amsterdam and they live there now. When she goes into the apartment, she finds a handsome boy who introduces himself as Theo, Martin and Marijke's son. She asks for a ride on his motorcycle, and later it is made obvious that they are dating.
One day soon after, Julia thinks she sees Valentina while out shopping. Julia grabs Valentina's arm and stares into her eyes. Julia isn't sure that this is her dead sister; however, she has suspicions. She sees that the girl she thinks is Valentina is pregnant. Elspeth (in Valentina's body) runs off and informs Robert that they need to move to Sussex so that she won't be recognized. Elspeth has always wanted to live in Sussex.
Robert realizes that Elspeth is manipulative and always gets her way and that brings harsh feelings among the family. They move to Sussex, where the relationship between Robert and Elspeth deteriorates with Robert ignoring her most of the time. She delivers a baby boy and one day, shortly after the child is born, Elspeth returns to their little cottage after a walk and discovers that Robert's thesis has been completed and is lying on the table. Robert is gone, never to return.
- Audrey Niffenegger Receives $5 Million Advance for Second Novel
- Allfree, Claire (2009-10-01). "Niffenegger goes on a timely journey". Metro. Retrieved 2009-10-03.
- Niffenegger, Audrey (2009-10-03). "Audrey Niffenegger on Highgate Cemetery". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-10-03.
- Official Website (see video)
- Book Review - 'Her Fearful Symmetry', By Audrey Niffenegger - Review - NYTimes.com (Reviewed by Susan Cokal)