Asymmetry // Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry seems to be finding its way onto every year-end best-of list, including The New Yorker as well as The New York Times, among countless others.  With Asymmetry, what begins as a toxic love story transforms into a thematically-layered novel about the imbalances of our lives, from age to privilege, told with a unique structure and dazzling prose.


From the back cover:

Told in three distinct and uniquely compelling sections, Asymmetry explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, dame, geography, and justice.  The first section, “Folly,” tells the story of Alice, a young American editor, and her relationship with the famous and much older writer Ezra Blazer.  “Madness” is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American man who, on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan, is detained by immigration officers and spends the last weekend of 2008 in a holding room in Heathrow.  These two seemingly disparate stories gain resonance as their perspectives interact and overlap, with yet new implications for their relationship revealed in an unexpected coda.

A stunning debut from a rising literary star, Asymmetry is an urgent, important, and truly original work that will captivate any reader while also posing arresting questions about the very nature of fiction itself.


“My mind is always turning over this question of how I’m going to feel later, based on what I’m doing now.  Later in the day.  Later in the week.  Later in a life starting to look like a series of activities designed to make me feel good later, but not now.  Knowing I’ll feel good later makes me feel good enough now.”

-Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry


I have always been one of those people who enjoys people-watching and imagining the stories of the individuals I observe.  This is especially true when I travel; airports and train stations are full of all kinds of people leading very different lives, and I like to sit and imagine life in their shoes- who are they? what do they do? and where are they going?  Halliday seems to be one of those people as well.  Asymmetry is keenly observant and brilliantly conceptualized; it is difficult to fathom that such an insightful and well-written novel can be Halliday’s debut.  With Asymmetry, she tells two seemingly opposite stories alongside one another in a way that highlights their similarities, with such a flawless transition that I hardly noticed the switch in narration.

Between the two stories, I’ll admit I enjoyed the first, “Folly,” quite a bit more than “Madness.”  “Folly” follows twenty-something Alice, a young editor in New York, as she begins a relationship with esteemed author Ezra Blazer (a.k.a. Philip Roth).  Then, “Madness” begins, and the narrator switches to Amar, an Iraqi-American stuck in Heathrow overnight.  Both parts are brilliantly written, but I felt a further appreciation toward “Folly” and Alice, than “Madness,” with its inconsistent jumps in time.


“For you, this is a novelty.  For us, it is a cage.  And then the world asks why.  Why are they killing each other?  Why can’t they sort it out?  Why do so many people have to die?  But maybe a better question is: why do so many people not want to live?”

-Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry


Asymmetry shows an enormous amount of promise for Halliday as a writer.  With magnificent prose, strong characters, and a unique structure, it’s no surprise that Asymmetry makes an appearance on countless best-of 2018 lists.

Further Reading: “Why Asymmetry Has Become a Literary Phenomenon” by Katy Waldman, The New Yorker; Asymmetry: A Mentorship Tale, with Surprises” by Adam Kirsch, The Atlantic.

Find this book on Goodreads.

9 thoughts on “Asymmetry // Lisa Halliday

  1. Great review! I read this recently and I’m afraid I didn’t care for it at all, Halliday’s writing style just didn’t really click with me, but I liked hearing your perspective on this book’s strengths.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently finished this one. At first I was a bit puzzled at the end and couldn’t work out how the three stories fit together, but after reading the book notes and pondering for a while it has started to make sense.

    I know it was a good book because I’m still thinking about it some days later.

    Liked by 1 person

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