Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers - normal, at least, for identical 'mirror' twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cozy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn't know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin ...but have no idea that they've been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt's mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins' mother - and who can't even seem to quite leave her flat...
With Highgate Cemetery itself a character and echoes of Henry James and Charles Dickens, "Her Fearful Symmetry" is a delicious and deadly twenty-first-century ghost story about Niffenegger's familiar themes of love, loss and identity."
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the Her Fearful Symmetry manuscript a couple of months ago - it was my second most anticipated book of the year (no. 1 being Twenties Girl, surprisngly they're both ghost stories, haha). I'd been dying to read it ever since it was announced that the manuscript was sold, but I was saving it for the summer when I had the time to read it without interruptions and that was this weekend, yay!
First of all, WHOA, what a book!!! Yes, everyone will tell you that it's completely different from The Time Traveler's Wife (one of my all-time favourite books!) and that's true, but what they have in common is that they're both incredibly original and well-written and they feature a supernatural element that perhaps sounds strange but totally works in the context of the book.
This extraordinary novel tells the story of mirror twins Valentina and Julia Poole, who live in Lake Forest, IL, USA. The story opens with the passing of Elspeth Noblin, who decides to leave her flat to her nieces, the above mentioned twins, who she has never actually met since she and her twin sister (the twins' mother) weren't on speaking terms. The twins move to London to live in their new flat (bordering on Highgate Cemetery, where their aunt is also buried) when they turn 21 and the will says they have to live there for a year before they can sell it.
They soon become friends with their two neighbours and start spending more and more time with them while growing distant from each other. Valentina enjoys the company of Robert, Elspeth's lover who is still mourning over her and he's also working on his book on the Highgate Cemetery, while Julia likes to spend time with Martin, a crossword maker whose wife had just left him because she could not cope with his OCD anymore (he has multiple compulsions and never leaves his flat).
The girls and Robert find a way to communicate with Elspeth, who is now a ghost and still lurking in the apartment. Valentina, the shy twin who has always been under her sister's command, decides that she wants to live her own life and not feel like half a person. Her plans for life are different from her sister's, but she knows Julia will never let her live her own life sooo she comes up with a plan how to escape from Julia. However, the plan is very dangerous and creepy and requires the help of Elspeth's newly acquired "abilities". Robert and Elspeth are both unsure about the plan, but Valentina manages to convince them and they go along with it. And then things take an unexpected turn! People get just what they've wanted, but, as one of the side characters points out, that can be the biggest punishment ...
The book mainly explors what it's like to be a twin. First, it's the story of the Noblin twins, Elspeth and Edwina, who used to be so close, but then everything changed and they parted ways for over 20 years and no one knows why, even though especially Julia and Valentina are never curious, but Elspeth refuses to tell them. The only one who finds out is Robert when he reads the letter his lover wrote to him to explain everything. Yes, it's quite a shocking twist, but I admit I expected something like that and was hoping it would be a bit better. Still, it was a huge twist.
The other set of twins, Julia and Valentina, are both still virgins and single because they're so attached to each other and always do everything together, they even dress aline. But eventually Valentina (aka Mouse) doesn't feel comfortable always being bossed around by her twin and she desperately wants to break free from her grip and sees only one way out - the most risky there is ...
I admit I've always interested in twins, but I don't think I could handle such a close relationship with a sister ... Nonetheless, I think the author presented all the ups and down of a twin relationship very well.
Another reason why I was also incredibly excited about this book is the setting - it takes place in London (my favourite city!) and more importantly at Highgate Cemetery!!! I've been fascinated with that particular graveyard ever since I've read Falling Angels, where most of the action also takes place at or around Highgate Cemetery. Sadly I've never visited it myself (definitely planning to the next time I'm in London!), but I was really excited to learn more about the cemetery as it is today as opposed to in the early 20th century (that's when the story in Falling Angles takes place). It's a fascinating place and I've particularly enjoyed the chapter titled "A Tour of the Highgate Cemetery" as it really gave me a nice tour of the cemetery without actually being there, hehe. To learn more about one of the most famous cemeteries, click here or here or watch a video here. After reading the book, I think I'll be a bit creeped out when I visit the cemetery, hehe.
The story is perhaps a bit slow paced at first, but still interesting enough to keep you turning pages - I just wanted to find out what happened to the Noblin twins! But the story really picks up once Valentina comes up with her devious plan and I was on tenterhooks whether it would actually work or not.
I thought the characters were brilliant and well developed too. The one I found most interesting was Martin with OCD problems, to which I could relate to on a very distant level. There weren't all that many side characters, but those that appeared were all interesting and contributed to the story. The end as such may not be the best outcome, but I found it satisfying. I like the cover too, it fits the story well (as opposed to the US one, which I'm too keen on).
On the whole, I really really enjoyed this book and I'm happy to report that it did live up to my expectations. Personally, I didn't think it was quite as amazing as The Time Traveler's Wife, but it was still a truly great book (even if a tad creepy, hehe)! I loved the twists and turns and the originality of it. This novel again proves what an outstanding storyteller Ms Niffenegger is and I can't wait for her next book, whenever that may be!
overall rating: 4/5
plot: 4/5 | writing: 4/5 | characters: 5/5 | cover: 4/5
ps: For more information on this book, visit the author's site. And wooohooo, you can also
pps: Lastly, click here to watch the author read an excerpt from the book (images of Highgate Cemetery are also shown) or watch the video below, in which Ms Niffenegger herself introduces the novel: