Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

Speaking of symmetry, at one point, I wondered in Niffeneger’s name was an anagram…Reggeneiffen? Too much Scrabble, I guess.

The first thing I learned was that Highgate Cemetary is a real place. It sounds so well described in the book that I suspected it might be real. Look at the pictures on the internet. Volunteers keep it in a state of “suspended decay” somewhat like the ghost town at Bodie, another place I like. http://highgatecemetery.org/

I love old cemeteries. I could not believe that I spent so much time in London and never heard of it. It will be on my definite list for my next visit there.

Back to the book, a set of twenty year old twins, still living at home, inherit an apartment from their aunt in London. The property has a gate from the garden into Highgate Cemetery. The conditions of the will state that the twins will need to live there for one year. After that they can sell it or do whatever else they want. They are not to let their parents enter the premises. There is plenty of money to go with the apartment so they don’t need to work.

One twin Julia is very outgoing and adventurous and immediately wants to move there. The other twin Valentina is more reticent and scared to leave home. They ask their mother about her sister and why they have not had contact with her. There is obviously some deep family secret concerned with their relationship. They also were twins.

They move into Elspeth’s apartment filled with all kinds of awesome antiques, vintage clothing, and adopt a little starving kitten they find. The more introverted sister is really into fashion design so loves the vintage clothes. The other sister takes her on long adventures on the Tube through London. Lots of window shopping, trying on Philip Treacy hats, and the like. They start out dressing exactly alike, always doing everything together, but eventually the quieter one starts trying to carve out her own life.

The two other major characters are the upstairs and downstairs neighbors. The upstairs neighbor is Martin, a man with OCD, hardly able to leave his apartment. He translates arcane languages for the British Museum and creates crossword puzzles for the newspaper. After a flood comes through the bedroom ceiling due to his washing the same spot over and over, Julia goes up to talk to him and eventually befriends him.

Robert was Elspeth’s younger lover. He is a volunteer at Highgate Cemetery. He is writing a Ph.D. thesis on the famous people buried at Highgate. “On these nights in the cemetery Robert stood in front of Elspeth’s grave, or sat on its solitary step with his back against the uncomfortable grillwork. It did not bother him when he stood by the Rossetti grave and couldn’t feel the presence of Lizzie or Christina, but he found it disturbing to visit Elspeth and find that she was not “at home” to him.” (p. 55).

It is a love story on several levels and a ghost story. I enjoyed it and wonder if there will be a sequel.


About KLevenson

I am Teacher Librarian at Piedmont High School in the San Francisco East Bay. I am a part time reference Librarian I for the San Francisco Public Library. I have a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State and a Teacher Librarian credential in addition to my teaching credential in Science. My first MA was from Harvard in Archaeology. My students teach me something new every time I am with them!
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