46 reviews

Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger

Published: 2010-09-29
Paperback : 406 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 25 of 46 members
From the author of the #1 bestselling The Time Traveler's Wife, a spectacularly compelling novel—set in and near Highgate Cemetery in London, about the love between twins, men and women, ghosts and the living.

Julia and Valentina Poole are twenty-year-old sisters with an intense ...
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From the author of the #1 bestselling The Time Traveler's Wife, a spectacularly compelling novel—set in and near Highgate Cemetery in London, about the love between twins, men and women, ghosts and the living.

Julia and Valentina Poole are twenty-year-old sisters with an intense attachment to each other. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. Their English aunt Elspeth Noblin has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions for this inheritance: that they live in the flat for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the girls’ aunt Elspeth and their mother, Edie.

The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders the vast Highgate Cemetery, where Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Stella Gibbons, and other luminaries are buried. Julia and Valentina become involved with their living neighbors: Martin, a composer of crossword puzzles who suffers from crippling OCD, and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. They also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including—perhaps—their aunt.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


Chapter 1: The End

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head toward the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Just as she did with time travel in The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger made the bold choice to center the story in Her Fearful Symmetry around a fantastical subject: ghosts. How does Niffenegger strive to make this supernatural occurrence believable in the novel? Do you think she succeeds? Why do you think Niffenegger is attracted to subjects like time travel and ghosts?

2. The book opens with Elspeth's death. Why might this be significant? In Chicago, why is Jack "relieved" when he hears that Elsepth has died? How do Jack's feelings for Elspeth foreshadow events later in the novel?

3. The narrator, in describing the physical appearance of Julia and Valentina, remarks that the twins "might have been cast as Victorian orphans in a made for TV movie." How do the twins appear to the outside world? Why do you think Niffenegger decided to make them beautiful but fragile--"like dandelions gone to seed?"

4. Before she dies, Elspeth tries to explain to Robert the nature of her relationship with Edie. Elspeth says, "All I can say is, you haven't got a twin, so you can't know how it is." How does Niffenegger depict the bonds between the two sets of twins in the novel? Compare and contrast the relationships between Elspeth and Edie and between Julia and Valentina.

5. In what ways does Valentina live up to her nickname, "Mouse," and in what ways do her actions in the novel contradict it?

6. As she observes Elspeth's funeral procession, Marijke muses that the cemetery is like "an old theater." What does she mean? How does Highgate Cemetery come to function like a character in Her Fearful Symmetry?

7. Martin is an unusual person: a translator of obscure languages and crossword puzzle setter who also suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Why is it important that he and Julia should become friends? What does their friendship reveal about each other?

8. "A bad thing about dying," Elspeth writes to the twins, "is that I feel I'm being erased." What does she mean by that? How does Elspeth seek to rectify this feeling of "being erased"? Similarly, after Marijke leaves him, Martin worries that his wife is gradually “bleaching out of his memory.” How is the issue of memory important to the characters in Her Fearful Symmetry?

9. One of the pivotal moments in the plot occurs when Robert takes Valentina on their first date. How does their sudden romantic attachment affect Julia and Valentina's relationship? How does it affect Robert? How did you react when you realized that Robert and Valentina might become lovers, and why?

10. Why does Elspeth choose to leave her apartment to Julia and Valentina? At one point, Robert conjectures that “it’s the extravagance of the thing that appealed to her.” Do you agree? How does your opinion of Elspeth change over the course of the novel?

11. Though ghosts figure prominently in the storyline, the characters in the novel spend relatively little time asking themselves about the spiritual implications of their predicament. Why do you think that is?

12. Niffenegger depicts several long-term romantic relationships in Her Fearful Symmetry: Elspeth and Robert; Martin and Marijke; Edie and Jack; as well as Jessica and James Bates. Which, if any, of these relationships is successful, and why?

13. Many of the characters in the novel demonstrate nostalgia for things in the past: Robert with Highgate Cemetery and its history; Martin with mostly forgotten languages; Elspeth with her book collection; and, even Julia and Valentina, with their appreciation of old clothes and television shows. Why do you think Niffenegger includes so many “nostalgic” elements?

14. Niffenegger plays with the idea of "being lost" in at least two ways in the novel. Julia and Valentina are frequently lost in London. When she loses her way, Valentina begins to panic, but Julia "abandons" herself to "lostness." Meanwhile, Robert and Elspeth experience loss as it relates to death. How do these two types of loss play out in the novel? Are they somehow related?

15. The title Her Fearful Symmetry is derived from a poem written in 1794 by William Blake, “The Tyger.” Look up the poem online, and read it. Why do you think Niffenegger chose this title? How do you think she intends for readers to understand the word “fearful”?

Suggested by Members

Do you believe in ghosts?
The challenges of having OCD or loving someone with OCD?
Do twins really struggle with what Julia and Valentina did?
by hdilaura (see profile) 09/04/10

What role does Martin play in the book?
by sgoodman (see profile) 06/08/10

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A Letter from Audrey Niffenegger:

Her Fearful Symmetry concerns the passions and mistakes of people who will go to extremes for love—or to avoid being alone. The original idea involved a man who never leaves his apartment, and a girl who visits him. This evolved into a story featuring two sets of twins, London's Highgate Cemetery and a very untrustworthy ghost. Late in the book one character tells another to be careful what he wishes for, and that is probably a useful bit of advice for readers of the book.

Book Club Recommendations

Divisive choice
by Bruins (see profile) 11/14/16
This will be a book that you either love or hate.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by jenn d. (see profile) 11/09/18

  "Confusing ending"by Cheryl B. (see profile) 11/14/16

Enjoyed the book up to the epilogue. It could have ended and been done.

by Carolyn R. (see profile) 04/03/16

20 year old twin sisters have an intense attachment to each other. Their mothers sister has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. The conditions are that their parents cannot e... (read more)

  "Bookclub had lots to say about this book"by Cheryl K. (see profile) 08/22/12

I really liked this book. A couple of twists in the book. The characters are odd and quirky but that's part of why I liked the book. As I got into the story it was hard for me to put aside.

  "The Ghost in the London Flat"by ELIZABETH V. (see profile) 09/06/11

HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger begins in a hospital room. A woman, Elspeth, dies and immediately thereafter watches her lover, Robert, mourn her. Somehow after that, though, her ... (read more)

  "Her Fearful Symmetry"by Amanda T. (see profile) 05/20/11

not even close to the time travelers wife!

  "Her Fearful Symmetry"by Anne M. (see profile) 05/10/11

  "Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel"by Marty K. (see profile) 04/25/11

I actually enjoyed this book. It is a little different, but so was the "Time Traveler's Wife". It was a love story on two levels, between a man and a woman and between twin sisters. It has a very sad... (read more)

  "Her fearful symmetry"by Ruth M. (see profile) 04/22/11

Clever, intricate and well written. Each character has a unique obsession which provokes good discussion.

  "creepy curiousity"by Audrey P. (see profile) 04/18/11

you keep reading thinking where is this creepy tale going and then it ends very spooky. I kept imagining the girls like whisps of air barely visable to those around them...the whole story felt very eerie.... (read more)

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