This is one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read and that’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s not easy to fit Her Fearful Symmetry into any pigeon holes, but to sum it up succinctly: twin sisters in America inherit the home of their estranged aunt who lives in London. The twins still live with their parents and move out to the UK in order to take their first steps into adulthood and independence. The twins make friends with their deceased aunt’s former lover and the man who lives in the flat above, whose life has been ruined by his severe OCD. On top of all that, their aunt haunts the flat as a ghost and becomes a sort of supernatural housemate to the pair. It might sound like a disjointed mess of contrasting ideas, but actually everything works together perfectly and creates a very believable world.
At the heart of the novel, you have the two twins, Julia and Valentina. As sisters and identical twins, they do everything together. They’ve shared their entire lives with one another and essentially see themselves as two halves of one whole. Their relationship was really fascinating to me and the way that it changed throughout the course of the novel was something that really kept me reading.
Elspeth, their deceased aunt, was another very interesting character. In some ways, Niffenegger’s approach to ghosts is one of the least frightening I’ve ever seen. It’s all written as if it’s something very ordinary. She’s a force within the flat she used to life in. She can move around, invisibly, within it and that’s it. At one point, she just watches an episode of Doctor Who with the twins. It’s all very light-hearted and almost seems at odds with the rest of the story, which is very grounded in reality. However, without wishing to spoil anything, I’ll say that this did change. By the end, I felt that this was probably the most disturbing ghost story I had ever read. A chill ran down my spine at one point, because what happened was just so indescribably creepy.
Ultimately, I felt that the book’s biggest strength was that it takes five very real characters, all of whom have detailed histories and are very well characterised, and then details the ways in which their lives intersect and the relationships which form between them. It’s very satisfying. Each person is the main character in their own narrative, the twins are adjusting to a new life in London. Elspeth is adapting to life as a ghost. Robert is coming to terms with Elspeth’s death. Martin (the man upstairs) is trying to cope with his OCD after his wife left him because it was too difficult for her. I was invested in all of them.
For a very grounded ghost story, filled with plenty of believable characters, this is definitely a book worth trying. Just be warned that it does get very distressing as it goes on.