By Lisa Halliday
Read Feb 2020
This book has received multiple accolades as a stunning first novel and so this reader began with some expectations. The first section did not stun this reader. Alice, a young, pretty assistant at a publishing house who is hoping to be a writer, meets a famous writer, Ezra, forty-some years her elder, and begins an affair with him. For quite some time he keeps her hidden from others he knows and she accepts this. She becomes his assistant in many ways—-picking up his various tonics and prescriptions for him as well as specific food stuffs he requires. They watch baseball in bed together. They talk about writing. He goes to his summer home on Long Island without her, part of the keeping their relationship hidden. Eventually he does allow her to come to that summer home where he enjoys watching her swim laps. One reviewer commented that she could have enjoyed 200 more pages of this section. This reader did not share her enjoyment of this story. What was she getting out of this relationship? What he was getting was far more obvious. What would propel her to begin a life beyond him? Not clear. Why would she stay with someone who clearly went through young women with little intention of having any commitment to them. He does eventually pay off her student loans and, of course, buys her expensive clothing. These acts did little to enhance my view of the character nor change my disappointment that Alice stayed with him.
I learned through reviews that the male character is a thinly disguised Phillip Roth, with whom the author had a relationship with while in her 20’s. This came as quite a surprise to me. Why would an author write about a former lover like this? Was this to be homage or an indictment? The fact that Roth was still alive when the book was published was also puzzling, knowing that he would likely read it. Was this to get some validation from him or to sting him?
Certainly this reader’s views of this part of the book are not shared by several reviewers which may indicate something about this reader’s literary capacity or taste. Perhaps it’s an age difference. In the end, this reader is not enchanted by May/December romances that seem quite out of balance when the December man seems to be taking advantage of the situation and seems to show little respect or appreciation for the May woman aside from providing expensive clothes and some cash.
The good news is that the second section of the book was extremely engaging and displays laudable author talent. The story centers on Amar, a person of interesting citizenship (born of Iraqi parents on a plane while in US airspace and while the family is traveling to the US to live). Amar is passing through London on his way to Iraq to see his brother who stayed in Iraq when Amar was a teenager and the family was visiting family in Iraq. The brother never embraced being a resident in the US and decided to study and practice medicine in the country he considered his home. Amar is planning to spend the evening in London with a friend, who is a foreign correspondent, while he waits for his flight the next day to get him close to Iraq. Heathrow Airport security has “just a few more questions” for him and these few questions take many, many hours. While Amar is waiting between various questioning sessions, his thoughts take us back to different periods in his life and give us unique insight into the way Amar sees himself given his interesting beginnings, his childhood, education, and work experiences.
The third section was fairly short and comprised an interview of Ezra by the host of a long-running British show that includes discussing the interviewee’s favorite musical pieces. Ezra throws out comments about his various young lovers and suggests that one of them has become a writer of sorts although he names neither the writer nor the piece. Is he trying to help her or hurt her with this approach? Readers are left to decide this for themselves. But the reader can conclude that the Amar piece was written by Alice and likely published after their relationship had ended.
Interestingly, this reader was experiencing Assymetry as the controversy over white author Jeanine Cummin’s new novel, American Dirt, about a Mexican bookseller and mother who flees to the US from Acapulco to get out of sight of a drug cartel. The controversy seemed to center on what “authorized” Cummin to write about a non-white character whose experience wasn’t hers? So the biggest “asymmetry” in this novel for this reader is that the author offers us Alice’s story, which she is clearly “authorized” to tell as she knows it first hand, and as well gives us the Amar piece, which some could contend she is not “authorized” since she is not male and certainly doesn’t have this kind of history or dilemmas with which to content. If the author had to write Alice’s story in order to bring the Amar piece to publication, this reader is glad she pursued that path. This reader has not read American Dirt and cannot comment on its quality. But this reader does believe that authors should not be confined to write only about people like themselves. This reader has read Asymmetry and hopes that Halliday will write more pieces of the quality of the Amar section and that she finds a publisher willing to allow her to publish it without needing to drape an Alice section in the book as well.