This weekend I picked up a copy of Lisa Halliday’s first novel, Asymmetry, because (a) it is in paperback, and (b) it made so many critics’ Best of the Year lists. Some of the critics are always wrong, but they can’t all be wrong, can they?
This smart, absorbing, accomplished novel is a good read. It is divided into three sections, and I have finished the first part, “Folly .” Because I hadn’t read the reviews, I was astonished by the premise: Alice, a lonely young editor in New York, has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous prize-winning elderly writer. And it’s based loosely on fact. Halliday, who is now 41, had an affair in her 20s with Philip Roth. He was 45 years older than she.
I probably would have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t googled her and read about the thing with Philip Roth. Roth’s American Pastoral may be THE great American novel of the 20th century, but when he began to write about very old men who had affairs with young beautiful women, I thought, Sheer fantasy. I was wrong!
Fortunately Halliday is such a good writer it isn’t necessary to know about the Roth affair. In the context of the novel, it makes sense. Alice is lonely, and her job in publishing isn’t so great. We first meet her sitting on a park bench.
In the perfect opening sentence, Halliday sketches Alice’s character and mood.
Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?
It is funny and charming that an editor doesn’t care for a book without quotation marks. She pretends to read it when Ezra, whom she immediately recognizes, sits down beside her to eat his ice cream. He asks her what she’s reading: she shows him her book.
“Is that the one with the watermelons?”
Alice had not yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway.
When they become lovers a few weeks later, Ezra becomes Pygmalion to her Galatea. He tries to educate Alice: he gives her a bag of books he thinks she should read, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, July’s People, and The Joke. Soon they are buddies who watch baseball games together. He is also very paternal: he sends her shopping for a warm coat because he doesn’t think hers is warm enough, buys her an air conditioner during a heat wave, and invites her to his gorgeous country home, where she must pretend to be his research assistant.
Eventually his health problems get in the way. He has heart disease, degenerative joint disease of the spine, glaucoma, and osteoporosis. After a harrowing night at he emergency room, Alice cries because she wants a “normal” relationship. His health problems are simply too much for a twentysomething woman to cope with.
I am a little more than halfway through the novel: the second part is about a different character, Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers at Heathrow. We shall see how it all connects.
Though it may not be my favorite book of the year (too soon to tell), she has a smart, elegant style, and I will certainly read anything else she writes!
ARE READING SOCKS REAL?
Are reading socks real?
I do want reading socks! They sell them at Barnes and Noble.
I want magical socks for reading! It is so cold in here at night, due to my husband’s having been raised in the north and liking a cool house, that I huddle under 10 blankets and quilts while I’m reading. Would cozy long soft socks, lined with polyester fleece, or short socks that seem to be fake fur-trimmed slippers, make a difference?
They’re just socks, I tell myself.
I do need more socks, though.