This article was published in the “Reviews” section of The Villager on Feb. 23, 2015
“Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffeneger tells the story of twin sisters struggling to find their own individuality after years of doing everything together. Their struggle is complicated by the recent death of their aunt, who was their mother’s twin.
The twins, Julia and Valentia Poole, inherit a flat in London from their late Aunt Elspeth. News of the inheritance comes as a great surprise because their mother, Edie, has been estranged from their aunt for decades.
The twins know little of the cause of Edie and Elspeth’s rift or of Elspeth herself. Her posthumous contact comes as a great shock to the twins and their mother.
The cause of Edie and Elspeth’s rift is not the only mystery in the novel.
Elspeth’s ghostly spirit remains stuck in her flat; she is conscious but unable to speak or appear to anyone. She is lonely, spending her days observing the twins.
As months in London go by, Julia and Valentia clash; Julia is strong-willed and controlling, while Valentia is timid and unsure of herself. Being on their own in a foreign city allows both girls to realize the need to separate and become individual people in order to find happiness.
Elspeth saddens watching the twins’ relationship deteriorate and is reminded of her own relationship with Edie.
Valentia longs for freedom, and that longing is further enhanced when she meets Elspeth’s former lover, Robert, who lives in the flat below Elspeth’s. Valentia and Robert fall for one another, and Robert exposes her to a world without Julia’s control.
Meanwhile, Julia befriends Martin, a man with crippling OCD, who also lives in the same apartment building. His wife recently left him because of his refusal of treatment. He develops a relationship with Julia as she takes on the role of his caretaker.
Both twins are finding friends outside of the other, enhancing their growing need for autonomy.
Just as Robert begins to move on from Elspeth, she finally gains the strength to reveal herself to the twins and Robert. After months of practice attempting to move objects, she communicates with them by writing a message in the dust on the piano top.
From that point on, Robert sits in the flat for hours communicating with Elspeth and reliving their cherished memories. This complicates his love for Valentia.
Elspeth also communicates with the twins, but refuses to answer questions about her rift with their mother.
Valentia wakes one morning surprised to find she can see Elspeth’s ghostly figure; however, Robert and Julia remain unable to see her. Julia is jealous of Valentia developing a relationship with Elspeth.
Valentia wishes she were a ghost like Elspeth, so she could mortally die and escape Julia, living on in peace.
“Her Fearful Symmetry” speaks to the complicated nature of relationships between sisters. Niffenegger tells a complex story, mixing love and fantasy together to play on the human desire for individuality and autonomy.
The secret between Edie and Elspeth and the conflict between Julia and Valentia address the closeness sisters share while also focusing on the strife that can occur when people become too interdependent. “Her Fearful Symmetry” is the perfect read for those looking to find themselves as it encourages readers to break from what is comfortable in order to find their true identity.