Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 1, 2010

Audrey Niffenegger Inrigues


The other day while volunteering at my local library I helped an acquaintance of mine put an ILL hold on Audrey Niffenegger’s new book, Her Fearful Symmetry. In the course of our conversation, having learned that I haven’t read either the new book or The Time Travelers Wife, she recommended something entirely different by Niffenegger – a sort of graphic novel/adult picture book called The Three Incestuous Sisters. I placed my own ILL request and a few days later I got not only the recommended book but another that followed the same design called The Adventuress.

I was totally blown away by both. Apparently before Niffenegger was a best-selling author (as those two unfortunate stickers scream from the covers of these otherwise lovely books…) she was a visual artist. She made/wrote The Adventuress when she was attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1980s, and while working on The Three Incestuous Sisters for fourteen years, she (meanwhile) wrote The Time Travelers Wife. She calls the books visual novels, and she initially made ten copies of each, learning bookbinding and letterpress printing to complete the projects. The images themselves are made using a technique called aquatints, which seems extremely complicated, involving zinc plates, drawing in acid-resistant ground, nitric acid baths, and multiple baths of this type to build up tones, working backwards and blind until a print is made from the plate, and then each print is painted with watercolors. Pretty amazing.


The stories in the books are simple – somewhat haunting, mysterious, not fully explained – and told with minimal words, words that essentially only back-up and expand upon the images. About The Three Incestuous Sisters, Niffenegger writes, ‘…imagine a silent film made from Japanese prints, a melodrama of sibling rivalry, a silent opera that features women with very long hair and a flying green boy. I never try to explain what it means; you can find that out for yourself.

I really liked these books. I’m not sure I feel compelled to go and read her novels, but I definitely have a new level of interest in her and a great deal more respect for someone who had completely disappeared for me behind those scary ‘best-seller’ stickers and even worse movie tie-in covers…! If you’ve never seen these books, check them out. 🙂


  1. Isn’t The Three Incestuous Sisters gorgeous? I haven’t seen The Adventuress in person, but I’m sure I’d love it too.

    • The Adventuress has a slightly simpler look, and a much mellower palette, but it is equally lovely.

  2. Oh wow, those sound beautiful! There’s something very vintage about those illustrations that appeals to me.

    • The process she uses is an antique one, according to her, so the ‘vintage’ look is definitely there.

  3. I didn’t check out any of her earlier works, but I loved both her recent books. I will have to check these out!

    • I admit I do feel curious, finally, about her novels. Maybe I’ll try them. 😉

  4. Whoa! I know The Three Incestuous Sisters, but I didn’t make the connection that she was their author – crazy! Thanks for reminding me how gorgeous and odd that book is, and for more info on the print-making process. I didn’t realize it was so involved.

    • It blows my mind how intensive the process is – and yet the images themselves are fairly simple. I love it.

  5. Guess what I am off to hunt down? Thanks for pointing me in a new (and lovely) direction.

    • Yay, glad to be able to tempt YOU for once! 🙂

  6. I’ve seen The Three Incestuous Sisters at the bookstore many times, at bargain price, and while I loved the art, didn’t feel compelled to get the book because I’m not exactly a fan of The Time Traveler’s Wife, but maybe soon I will forego the bias due to the art. Thanks Sarah!

    • Heck, you could stand there and read the book in less than 5 minutes! Did you read The Time Traveler’s Wife? I have to admit that most of my lack of interest stems from the whole “best-seller” thing more than anything else. I could be missing out on a genuinely good book…maybe? 🙂

  7. I still need to read Her Fearful Symmetry, purchased and sitting on my shelf. My husband and my son just came home with The Time Traveler’s Wife in DVD, as I loved the novel, but I think tonight we’ll have to watch the opening ceremonies for the Olympics.

    • Do you have a review on your blog of The Time Travelers Wife? I would be interested in your thoughts. I watched parts of the movie, but I really dislike Eric Bana so that made it hard for me. 🙂

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