A friend of mine gave me her copy of Asymmetry (2018) by Lisa Halliday. She said that it was hard to describe, but well written and very interesting. I was intrigued, and then I saw that it was also on NPR’s Best Books of 2018 (as well as many other “best of” lists with tons of critical praise). All of that was more than enough to make me start reading.
I thought Asymmetry was very well-written, insightful, and unique. If I’d had it in the Kindle version, I would have highlighted a number of passages. Unfortunately, my favorite passages have been lost to my laziness. I read a couple of reviews before and while I was reading this book. I found them somewhat misleading, which led to some confusion on my part, but I will discuss that more later.
Asymmetry is split into three sections taking place in the early 2000’s, around the time of the Iraq War. The first section, called “Folly,” is about a relationship between Alice, a young woman working as an editor in New York City, and Ezra Blazer, the much older, and very successful author. Their connection is obviously unequal although some of these dynamics change as time passes. I found this section to be challenging for two reasons. The first was that it was written in the third person in a very impersonal style. I often wondered what Alice was thinking and wanted to understand her more. The other reason was that Alice’s relationship was reminiscent of another relationship I’d been in (although not to that extreme) and it was uncomfortable seeing a similar situation from a more objective viewpoint.
The second section, called “Madness,” changes directions rather dramatically. Amar Jaafari is an Iraqi-American flying back to Iraq through Heathrow to see his brother when he is detained at customs. This part of the story is told in the first person from Amar’s point of view. The discussions at Heathrow are interspersed with memories of Amar’s life in the United States, his family, and their visits back to Iraq to see extended family. This section felt much more clear, detailed, and understandable. I was not left guessing at Amar’s thoughts and experiences as I had in the first section.
The final section is a radio interview with Ezra Blazer where he discusses his favorite music records and what he would take with him to a deserted island. Nothing much has changed with Ezra, and he hits on the much younger, and married, radio host.
What I learned about this book when I read the critical reviews was that Lisa Halliday had an affair with Philip Roth when she was a young editor in New York City. Critics felt the first section was something of an autobiographical telling of this intimate relationship, and they often seemed to be intrigued to get an inside glimpse of such a famous author. I’m unsure how the literary circles became privy to such information, but it seemed to be well known.
This is a well-written book that would be great for a book club because it could garner a lot of discussion. I found parts of it very powerful. However, the first section, and especially the coda, sometimes felt like an inside joke among literary circles and not as meaningful for those who don’t care about Philip Roth. For example, there is a lot of discussion about Blazer always trying to win a Nobel Prize, which was apparently meaningful because Philip Roth never won one. Besides seeing the shifting dynamic of the relationship between Alice and Ezra, I did not care much about Ezra Blazer.
What left me confused were some of the reviews and blurbs that discussed the book: “These two seemingly disparate stories gain resonance as their perspectives interact and overlap, with yet new implications for their relationship revealed in an unexpected coda.” As I read, I kept waiting for the promised, expected revelation that would make this book so meaningful. And I think it’s that Ezra Blazer hints in his radio interview that Alice wrote the second section of the novel as a short story. But there are hints to this in the first section of the story, so that didn’t surprise me. Alice wonders if she would be able to write a convincing story from a middle eastern man’s point of view. This brings up interesting questions about literature and does tie the story together–kind of. However, it wasn’t what I was expecting after all the hubbub. Because Blazer’s interview did not part any more information to me (unless I’m missing something, which is very possible), I could have done without it. After reading such a powerful story of Amar, I was kind of frustrated with Blazer going on and on about himself. However, I guess you could argue that Halliday is just showing us another example of asymmetry. I was left with lots to think about and some frustrations.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.