Dealing with the Dead: A Review of “Her Fearful Symmetry”

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Julia and Valentina are frighteningly similar. As mirror-image twins, they are perfectly symmetrical to one another. Valentina’s heart is even located on the opposite side of her chest, causing her to be exceedingly delicate in contrast to her strong-willed twin. Despite these minor differences, the two girls’ identities are so closely intertwined it’s as if one cannot exist without the other.

When their Aunt Elspeth dies of cancer at the young age of 44, Julia and Valentina’s unhealthily co-dependent relationship is threatened. Elspeth leaves everything to her nieces, yet insists that they live in her flat in England for a year before they can inherit anything. Once in England, the two sisters begin to realize the limitations of their close relationship and subsequently start to drift apart.

This novel, Her Fearful Symmetry by author Audrey Niffenegger, also has an unexpected supernatural element. Elspeth’s spirit remains trapped in her flat, haunting the twins more and more as time goes on. Valentina becomes unnaturally obsessed with the presence of her aunt’s spirit and begins to lose herself in her paranormal fixation. This frightens and alienates Julia, who fails to share her sister’s interest in communicating with their aunt.

The way in which the twins respond to the presence of their aunt starkly highlights the contrast between life and death in Her Fearful Symmetry. Elspeth’s flat borders Highgate Cemetery, allowing Niffenegger to literally place life and death side-by-side. The twins themselves embody life and death through the comparison of Valentina’s diminishment and Julia’s accentuated liveliness.

Though the idea of ghosts may seem unrealistic to some, this novel points out how fixating on the past causes one to lose grip on the present. Through the characters of Valentina, Elspeth’s lover Robert, and even Elspeth herself, the reader can see that the refusal to let go is an enormous hindrance to happiness. Niffenegger does a great job of balancing the supernatural with reality, making this the perfect book with which to finish out the month of October.

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