Her Fearful Symmetry Book Summary and Study Guide

Detailed plot synopsis reviews of Her Fearful Symmetry

Twin sisters inherit the home and fortune of a mysterious aunt and try to unravel family mysteries while struggling with their own identities. Julia and Valentina Poole, twenty-year old American twin sisters, receive a letter informing them that their aunt Elspeth Noblin, whom they have never met, has died and left them her flat in London and her considerable fortune. The twins learn the conditions of the will require them to live together in their aunt's flat for at least one year, and to never allow their parents to visit the flat. The girls are both intrigued but while bolder twin Julia is excited to charge ahead with the plan, the more introverted and fragile Valentina is hesitant and frightened. They ask their mother, Edie, for information about their mysterious aunt Elspeth who was their mother's identical twin, but she will not tell them why she did not see or speak to her sister since Julia and Valentina were babies.
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As the twins prepare to move, we are introduced to the eccentric neighbors in Elspeth's London apartment building overlooking the historic Highgate Cemetery. Robert, who was Elspeth's longtime boyfriend and lives in the downstairs flat, is devastated by grief. Marijke, the wife of Martin, a sufferer of OCD who never leaves his home, suddenly decides she cannot stand to live stilted by her husband's condition any longer and leaves him to move to Amsterdam. Elspeth is also still a presence in the building. Just becoming conscious as a ghost, she tests her limitations and tries to alert Robert to her presence, to no avail.

Julia and Valentina arrive in their new home and try to get to know their aunt by wearing her clothing, reading her books and asking neighbors to tell stories about her. Robert hides from the girls, watching them from a distance but avoiding their knocks on his door, because they remind him painfully of Elspeth. The girls explore London but don't really find their place. Valentina expresses the desire to go to college and study fashion design in order to build a career and life of her own, but Julia forbids it, insisting that they never attend school, and live together forever, always putting each other first.

When Martin's compulsive floor-scrubbing leads to a leak in the girls' ceiling, Julia meets Martin and the two form a flirtatious friendship. When the girls eventually take a cemetery tour, Robert finally introduces himself. He is a scholar of the cemetery and leads the tour. Robert and Valentina share a mutual moment of love at first sight and begin to date, chastly.

Elspeth, as a ghost, has gathered strength and finally her efforts to communicate are noticed. She writes to Robert and the twins in the the dust on the piano top, and eventually Valentina and Robert move on to communicating with Elspeth by automatic writing. Soon, Valentina becomes able to see Elspeth from time to time.

Tensions grow between Julia and Valentina, and they yell and even hit each other. Valentina adopts a white kitten that lived in the cemetery. While Elspeth and Valentina play with the kitten one day, Elspeth accidentally plucked the kitten's soul from its body, but after a few minutes she is able to get the soul back in and the kitten seems fine.

Robert finally reads the diaries left to him by Elspeth and finds out the secret that the elder twins, Elspeth and Edie have kept for two decades. The woman Robert knew as Elspeth was actually Edie, the mother of the girls. Years ago Edie and Elspeth tested the loyalty of the man Elspeth loved by impersonating each other. When the wrong sister became pregnant, the sisters felt the right thing to do was to let the man, Jack, believe that the woman who was having his children, was indeed the twin sister he loved. But when Julia and Valentina (the babies that resulted from that pregnancy) were a year old, Edie and Elspeth were both unhappy with the secret choice they had made, so they switched identities, assuming Jack would never guess. The tensions that arose between them while plotting damaged their relationship forever. Though the woman who lived from then on as "Elspeth," was happy with her single life in London, she always missed Julia and Valentina. This explains why she left the nieces she formerly claimed never to have met her fortune.

Valentina asks Elspeth if she would try to remove her soul the way she did with the kitten. She wants Elspeth to remove her soul from her body long enough for Julia to believe she is dead, so she can then run away to live her own life. At first, Elspeth resists this plan. meanwhile Valentina falls deeper in love with Robert but feels very sad that he is still in love with the ghost of Elspeth. eventually Elspeth agrees to Valentina's bizarre plan. They approach Robert to help them.

On the day of the plan, Elspeth does indeed remove Valentina's soul. Julia arrives home to find her twin dead on the floor. Doctors pronounce her dead and she calls her parents, Jack and Edie, who fly in from America. Robert convinces an undertaker who is a close friend, not to embalm Valentina and to pack her body in concealed ice in the coffin. After the funeral, Valentina's casket is placed in the family tomb and after dark, Robert retrieves her body and brings it inside where the ghost of Elspeth plans to assist the ghost of Valentina getting back inside. However, Valentina's spirit is too weak. Elspeth takes over valentina's body.

Instead of being happy that he has the woman he loves back in the world of the living, Robert is horrified by what he has done. However, he helps Elspeth, in Valentina's body, change her appearance and they move to a different part of London. Elspeth becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, Julia has started to communicate with Valentina's ghost. Valentina's ghost does not tell Julia what Elspeth has done. Valentina does not want to stay trapped in the flat where she died, so she requests that her sister carry her spirit outside into the cemetery in her mouth. When Valentina's ghost arrives in the cemetery she meets other friendly spirits, checks to see that her body is indeed missing from the family tomb, then sets off to find her living body.

Julia meets Martin and Marijke's son Theo and falls begins dating him. Robert, after establishing Elspeth and her new body in the new home, walks out the door one day and disappears.
Best part of story, including ending: I loved the mysterious world of this story, both the ghostly aspects and the setting of the apartment building and cemetery.

Best scene in story: My favorite scene was the girls' arrival in London and to Elspeth's home. I liked the image of the two tiny, pale girls making their way up the walk, being watched by Robert.

Opinion about the main character: I liked Julia and Valentina Poole a lot for their weirdly close twin relationship and wispy physical descriptions.

The review of this Book prepared by Bonnie a Level 2 American Robin scholar

Chapter Analysis of Her Fearful Symmetry

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Plot & Themes

Composition of Book planning/preparing, gather info, debate puzzles/motives 20%Feelings, relationships, character bio/development 50%Descript. of society, phenomena (tech), places 30% Tone of book    -   sensitive (sigh....) FANTASY or SCIENCE FICTION?    -   fantasy story on current Earth Magical Beings/Mental/Magical/Powers    -   Yes magical powers:    -   they see dead people! (fantasy) Is this an adult or child's book?    -   Adult or Young Adult Book Horror story?    -   Yes Horror plotlets    -   the ghost chased me!

Main Character

Identity:    -   Female Profession/status:    -   unemployed Age:    -   20's-30's If magical mental powers:    -   mind reading Really unusual traits?    -   Physically sick


Earth setting:    -   current (early 21st century) Takes place on Earth?    -   Yes

Writing Style

Accounts of torture and death?    -   moderately detailed references to deaths scientific jargon? (SF only)    -   none/very little science jargon needed Sex in book?    -   Yes What kind of sex:    -   descript of kissing    -   descript of touching personal anatomy    -   impregnation/reproduction    -   description of breasts    -   descript. of private male anat. How much dialogue?    -   roughly even amounts of descript and dialog

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Audrey Niffenegger Books Note: the views expressed here are only those of the reviewer(s).
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