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Asymmetry

Review

Asymmetry

Every once in a while, you encounter a novel that destabilizes you, that makes you feel imbalanced or even disoriented during reading --- but that you are nevertheless more than happy to surrender to, given the beauty of its language or the vigor of its ideas. Lisa Halliday’s self-assured debut, ASYMMETRY, is one of those books. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, the author takes you in another direction entirely.

The novel’s opening section, “Folly,” narrates what could (possibly) be a thinly veiled version of the author’s own early career in New York City. Alice, an editorial assistant at a literary publishing house, has a chance encounter with one of her employer’s most celebrated authors, the novelist Ezra Blazer. This character, who could (almost certainly) be a thinly veiled version of Philip Roth, has a ribald sense of humor, a series of rapidly escalating health problems, and an affinity for young women. He’s also been consistently passed over for the Nobel Prize that Alice (and, by extension, Ezra) is certain he deserves.

"Infused with music and literature, rich with small moments that add up to something much bigger, funny and wise in a hundred different ways, ASYMMETRY keeps readers off-kilter in the best possible way."

The two almost immediately begin a romantic relationship, and although Alice mentions (more in passing than anything else) that she also harbors literary ambitions, it’s clear that any mentorship Ezra provides will be accidental at best. Instead, his attitude toward her is paternalistic (in an interview that closes the novel, he mentions that “after the fact, I consider my girlfriends my children”), buying her luxury goods, teaching her the appreciation of the finer things in life, and generally helping her navigate New York City in the early years post-9/11. Near the end of “Folly,” Alice faces a choice: Will she continue caring for her rapidly declining older lover, even at the expense of her own professional ambitions and/or happiness? Or will she choose a different path?

The answer is not as simple as it might appear --- and it’s certainly not immediately answered, since the reader is next thrust into the novel’s second substantial part, “Madness,” which focuses on a character who, on the surface of things, could not be more dissimilar from Alice. This section is framed as a monologue narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American economist who has found himself, during the height of the Iraq War, detained at Heathrow Airport during what he had thought would be a routine layover, an opportunity to catch up with an old friend. During this consistently surprising and ultimately gut-wrenching second section, readers may constantly ask themselves about the relationship of this new narrative to the first --- but ultimately, Amar’s story of self-doubt, disappointment and disillusionment stands on its own.

Which makes perfect sense when, in what appears to be a throwaway passage in the novel’s brief final section (that interview with Ezra Blazer), the connection is made clear. Doing so will force readers to reevaluate not only Alice’s character but also her relationship with her mentor --- and will even prompt them to revisit the character and story of Amar once more. Infused with music and literature, rich with small moments that add up to something much bigger, funny and wise in a hundred different ways, ASYMMETRY keeps readers off-kilter in the best possible way.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 22, 2018

Asymmetry
by Lisa Halliday

  • Publication Date: February 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 150116676X
  • ISBN-13: 9781501166761