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Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday


Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (Sara’s Picks)

Halliday’s debut novel is comprised of three seemingly unconnected stories.

In the first story, “Folly,” a young woman named Alice embarks on an affair with a much-older, acclaimed author, often mentioned, but never winning, the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ezra Blazer is a thinly disguised Philip Roth, with whom Halliday had had a romantic relationship in the early 2000s. Like her central character, she, too, was an aspiring writer and literary agent in her 20s. But this is not a cliched May-December romance; Halliday laces it with witty, acerbic language and humor that one reviewer compared to the writing of Raymond Carver.

In the beginning of the affair, Ezra sets all the rules. He phones her at all hours, his number always appearing as, “CALLER ID BLOCKED.” He gives Alice books to broaden her knowledge of the canon; he slips her money with which to buy clothes. Ezra even tells her where to purchase the clothes. Together, they have sex (carefully because of Ezra’s back), watch baseball in bed, eat rich deli foods purchased on the Upper West Side, and listen to news of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the asymmetry in their relationship gradually shifts when Ezra’s health issues take a serious turn.

Alice (an allusion to Alice in Wonderland) has her youth, her health, and her life ahead of her. These are her powers. But youth is pitted against experience, great talent, and ultimately, mortality. “Choose this adventure, Alice,” Ezra says when in the hospital. “This is the adventure. This is the misadventure. This is living.” (p. 123) Alice must choose whether to stay in the rabbit hole or create life and art of her own design.

The second story, “Madness,” appears to be unrelated to the first. At its center is a young, Iraqi-American economist and doctoral student, who is detained at Heathrow Airport in 2008. Amar is en route to Iraq to visit his brother, a plastic surgeon who works on bombing victims. The story weaves from present to past, from war-torn Iraq to the hallowed halls of academia.

The book’s final section is “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs.” It tells of a radio interview with Ezra in which he is asked to name the songs he would want to hear if he were stranded on a deserted island. Here the author implies a link between the first two stories—one that is easily missed if read too quickly.

Timely and relevant to our current political climate, this debut novel introduces an author of great promise—winner of the prestigious Whiting Award for her edgy and insightful work. Asymmetry is a tour de force—a novel whose many themes are revealed with each successive reading.

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