‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday – An Asymmetrical Novel


‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday   (2018) – 271 pages

Am I the only one who found the novel ‘Asymmetry’ disjointed?

‘Asymmetry’ is divided into three parts. In Part I, we have the affair between a twenty-five year old woman named Alice and a seventy-two year old famous author who seems to bear a strong resemblance to Philip Roth. In Part II is the story of Amar Jaafari who is born to Iraqi Muslim parents but is a United States citizen by virtue of being born in the United States.  Part III is there seemingly just for fun and has the old author telling us his favorite music.

First let’s discuss the May-December relationship that is in Part I.

Do we even have to ask whether or not this old single man would jump into a relationship and into bed with this young woman?  For the woman this asymmetrical relationship is more questionable.  He has fame, prestige, and money.  She is a book editor and he is a famous author, so he is at the top rung of a field that she works in. He treats her very well. They both are avid Major League baseball fans, she for the Boston Red Sox, he for the New York Yankees. They seem quite compatible, but still…

Somehow her affair seems outside her real life. When someone asks the young woman if she is dating anyone, she tells them, “No”.  Only rarely does Alice have thoughts like:

“Dwarfed by the plane trees, he looked smaller and frailer than he did in the close refuge of his apartment, and for a moment Alice saw what she supposed other people would see: a healthy young woman losing time with a decrepit old man.”   

In this Part I, the writer Lisa Halliday has a light pleasant touch.  There are no angry or resentful arguments between this 72 year old man and this 25 year old woman.  The young woman is at least as happy with the affair as the man.

There is no lightness in Part II.  Amar Jaafari who is a citizen of the United States is trying to board a plane in London to return to his parents’ homeland of Iraq sometime in 2008 and is detained.  The United States is still fighting the needless tragedy of the Iraq War.  If Amar is detained much longer he will miss his connecting flight.

“My relatives would describe to me what Baghdad used to be like.  They told me that as recently as the Seventies, it looked like Istanbul does now: bustling with tourists and business people, a thriving cosmopolitan capital in an ascendant Middle East.  Before Iran, before Saddam, before sanctions and Operation Iraqi Freedom and now this, this too had been a country of culture, of education and commerce and beauty, and people came from all over the world to see it and be part of it.  And now? Do you see, Amar, this chaos outside our doors, this madness?”

The sentences are longer in Part II and much more serious.

There is no or very little connective tissue between Part I of ‘Asymmetry’ and Part II of ‘Asymmetry’.  Most reviewers were fine with that and connected the two parts under the rubric ‘asymmetry’ somehow. However I am not sure that the people who like the light romance of the May-December affair will like the heavy-duty story of the moral consequences of the Iraq War or visa-versa.

I had fun with Part III in which the old author from Part I is interviewed about his favorite music that he would take with him to a desert island.  It lightened things up again after the heavy-duty Part II.  Also it contained this excellent quote I had not heard before:

 “Wasn’t it Socrates, or one of his ilk, who said that the celibacy of old age is like finally being unwrapped from the back of a wild horse?” 


Grade:   B 


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