Asymmetry is now at the top of both the New York Times and the New Yorker year end best lists. And I am in full agreement. I’ve just finished my second full read. As someone who pines for ‘good old fashioned novels’, I was completely swept up by Lisa Halliday’s fictionalizing of her affair with Philip Roth when she was in her twenties and he was much older. Though she submits it’s not actually Roth but an amalgam of people in her life, it feels like reportage…and yet not.
Her character is just brilliant enough, self-deprecating enough, attractive enough, young enough, clever enough, to make it not only believable that he would be attracted to her but that she would see through him. Roth saw the MS and liked it. Here’s a case where life and art are intertwined—and they were apparently still friends up until his death. There could be nothing more flattering, in the end.
Once many years ago in northwestern Connecticut, I walked into a popular restaurant and saw Philip Roth sitting in a booth with some friends.(Roth had a home nearby) I know he shot a glance my way. I say that not to boast but to affirm how compelling this man’s gaze was.
At first Halliday’s sandwich of the story of the young Iraqi-American who is detained at Heathrow felt jarring. But on my second read, I understood her impulse to make us see that while her intimate story was playing out, a much graver, life-or-death defining experience was afoot. These characters are both young and trying to find their place in a world in which normal expectations have been upended.
I am hugely jealous of Lisa Halliday, who not only has dominated the charts but lives now in Milan, away from the fray of NY publishing. I enjoyed reading this novel twice and I imagine it will become a classic example for all aspiring authors. I look forward to her next book.