About The Book

A TIME and NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BOOK of the YEAR * New York Times Notable Book and Times Critic’s Top Book of 2018

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2018 BY * Elle * Bustle * Kirkus Reviews * Lit Hub* NPR * O, The Oprah Magazine * Shelf Awareness

The bestselling and critically acclaimed debut novel by Lisa Halliday, hailed as “extraordinary” by The New York Times, “a brilliant and complex examination of power dynamics in love and war” by The Wall Street Journal, and “a literary phenomenon” by The New Yorker.

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, fame, 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. A tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance that takes place in New York during the early years of the Iraq War, “Folly” also suggests an aspiring novelist’s coming-of-age. By contrast, “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 “a transgressive roman a clef, a novel of ideas, and a politically engaged work of metafiction” (The New York Times Book Review), and a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word” (The Atlantic). Lisa Halliday’s novel will captivate any reader with while also posing arresting questions about the very nature of fiction itself.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Asymmetry includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

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, fame, 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. A tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance that takes place in New York during the early years of the Iraq War, “Folly” also suggests an aspiring novelist’s coming-of-age. By contrast, “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.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Why do you think Halliday chose to title her novel Asymmetry? Discuss the central relationships within the book. In what ways are they unequal? Are there other things that are asymmetrical within the book in addition to the interpersonal relationships? Discuss them with your book club.

2. Alice tells Ezra, “I guess you could say . . . that I’m a good old-fashioned girl” (p. 17). Describe the context of this statement. How did you interpret the statement? How would you describe Alice? Did your perception of her change throughout the novel? In what ways?

3. Discuss the structure of the novel. Did the titles of each section frame your understanding of the narrative that follows? If so, how? Who or what do you think “Folly” and “Madness” refer to?

4. Amar recounts how at a dinner with Maddie and one of Maddie’s high school friends, the conversation turned to religion. Were you surprised to learn that Amar was religious, given that he identifies as an empiricist? How does he reconcile the two belief systems that are seemingly at odds? Explain his argument in favor of religion.

5. Amar says that his mother has told him, “You would be happier . . . if you were more like your brother. Sami lives in the moment, like a dog,” and then notes with irony that Sami’s name means “high, lofty, or elevatednot traits you’d readily associate with [a dog]” (p. 149). Did you find yourself making certain assumptions about the characters based on their names? If so, what were they? Ezra’s name isn’t revealed immediately when he starts spending time with Alice. What’s the effect?

6. Amar “once heard a filmmaker say that in order to be truly creative a person must be in possession of four things: irony, melancholy, a sense of competition, and boredom” (p. 152). Do you agree? What do you think leads to creativity? As a well-respected author, Ezra is viewed by many as “truly creative.” Do you think he possesses all the characteristics enumerated in the statement? Share some examples.

7. When they are discussing a homeless man in their neighborhood, Ezra chastises Alice, telling her, “Don’t sentimentalize him” (p. 38). Explain this statement. Why does Ezra object to the way that Alice is speaking about the man? Are any of the other characters guilty of sentimentalizing others within the narrative? What are the dangers in doing so?

8. Ezra asks Alice, “Do you ever think this isn’t good for you?” (p. 49) of their relationship. Why might it be detrimental to Alice? What do you think of their relationship? Did your feelings about it change as you got to know Ezra and Alice as a couple? Why or why not? What do you think they see in each other?

9. Amar muses, “Sometimes I wonder whether we hide lovers from others because it makes it easier to hide ourselves from ourselves” (p. 179). What are the reasons that Alice and Ezra give each other for keeping their relationship hidden? Do you think they’re being truthful about the rationale behind their actions? Explain your answer.

10. When Amar is speaking with Hassan, Hassan tells him to “think about the future.” Upon reflection, Amar says, “If I were to articulate the prevailing impression of the . . . weeks I spent in Iraq . . . it would be to venture that the future meant something very different there from what it means in, say, America” (p. 222). Based on Amar’s descriptions of his visit in Iraq, do you agree? Why is it so hard for Zahra’s family to understand the concept of making New Year’s resolutions? Compare his world view to that of Zahra’s family. Do Ezra and Alice also experience different perceptions of what “the future” means? Explain your answer.

11. Amar tells Sami that the more time he spent in the Middle East, the more he understood why Alastair said “the more time a foreign journalist spends in the Middle East, the more difficult it becomes for him to write about it” (p. 226). Explain the sentiment that Alastair expresses. What causes Amar’s view to evolve? Why does Sami disagree? What does Sami think the role of art should be? What do you think?

12. Passages from several books are interspersed within the text of Asymmetry. What books do these excerpts come from? Why do you think that Halliday has included these passages? Did the excerpts affect your reading? If so, how?

13. Both Amar and Alice make unexpected disclosures to strangers—to the doctor in the airport and to the judge during jury duty respectively. What are the disclosures that each of the characters share? Why are they able to make these assertions in front of virtual strangers? Were you surprised by their pronouncements?

14. Consider the parallels between Asymmetry and Alice in Wonderland, beginning with the first sentence and including all the foods and beverages (and pills) Alice and Ezra eat and drink, the description of Alice's first ride up Ezra's elevator, Amar's reflection on rabbit holes, and Ezra's reference on page 261 to penetrating the looking-glass. Discuss these and any other similarities between the two books. What might this connection be trying to say?

15. Chad Harbach praised Asymmetry, saying, “Halliday’s debut novel starts like a story you’ve heard, only to become a book unlike any you’ve read. The initial mystery is how its pieces fit together; the lasting one is how she pulled the whole thing off.” Were you able to solve the “mystery” of how the seemingly disparate stories related to each other? Talk about it with your book club. Did you find the stories more powerful by reading them in tandem?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Maddie tells Amar, “I’ll want to be a doctor because I’ve been reading William Carlos Williams and I’ve decided his is an exemplary life” (p. 175). Learn more about William Carlos Williams and read some of his poems with your book club. Did you find them inspiring? If so, what was it about them that spoke to you? Why might his writings inspire Maddie to go into medicine?

2. Listen to the songs on Ezra’s Desert Island Discs playlist. Did you like them? What would you choose for your own playlist? Share your selections with your book club, explaining the memories behind each of your choices.

3. Ezra gifts Alice with blackout cookies from “the Columbus Bakery, which he passed every day on his walk” (p. 11). Try blackout cookies with your book club. What do you think of them? Are there any local foods, like Ezra’s blackout cookies, that are special to you? Tell the members of your book club about the foods, taking care to explain what it is about the foods that makes them important to you.

About The Author

(c) Phil Soheili

Lisa Halliday grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts and currently lives in Milan, Italy. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review and she is the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award for Fiction. Asymmetry is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 2018)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501166778

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Raves and Reviews

WINNER OF A 2017 WHITING AWARD // NATIONAL BESTSELLER

Praise for Asymmetry

“Asymmetry is extraordinary, and the timing of its publication seems almost like a feat of civics. . . .Halliday’s prose is so strange and startingly smart that its mere existence seems like commentary on the state of fiction. . . . It’s a first novel that reads like the work of an author who has published many books over many years. . . . Halliday has written, somehow all at once, a transgressive roman a clef, a novel of ideas and a politically engaged work of metafiction.” —Alice Gregory, The New York Times Book Review

"Masterly...As you uncover the points of congruence, so too do you uncover Halliday’s beautiful argument about the pleasure and obligations of fiction...It feels as if the issues she has raised — both explicitly and with the book’s canny structure — have sown seeds that fiction will harvest for years to come." —"The New Vanguard," The New York Times Book Review 

"Exquisite...For us, the ride is in surrendering to falling down rabbit holes to unknown places. The moment “Asymmetry” reaches its perfect ending, it’s all the reader can do to return to the beginning in awe, to discover how Halliday upturned the story again and again." The Washington Post

“A scorchingly intelligent first novel. . . a clever comedy of manners set in Manhattan as well as a slowly unspooling tragedy about an Iraqi-American family, which poses deep questions about free will, fate and freedom, the all-powerful accident of one’s birth and how life is alchemized into fiction. . . . [Asymmetry] will make you a better reader, a more active noticer. It hones your senses.” —Parul Seghal, The New York Times

"A brilliant and complex examination of power dynamics in love and war." —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

"It’s hard to deny, by the novel’s end, that Alice/Halliday has pulled off this stunt of transcendence. As with a gymnast who’s just stuck a perfect routine, your impulse is to ask her, what’s next?" —Christian Lorentzen, New York Magazine

"Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry, begins with a lopsided affair–a perfect vehicle for a story of inexperience and advantage . . . Alice and Amar may be naive, but Halliday is knowing–about isolation, dissatisfaction and the pain of being human." Time Magazine

"Asymmetry is a debut burnished to a maximum shine by technical prowess, but it offers readers more than just a clever structure: a familiar world gone familiarly mad." The New Republic

"In its subtle and sophisticated fable of literary ambition, and the forms it can take for a young woman writer, Asymmetry is a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word—a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade. . . . Much more rarely do we hear this story from the young woman’s point of view. What’s so powerful and interesting about Asymmetry is that Halliday does not exactly undo that silencing; rather, she enacts it, and then explodes it." The Atlantic

"An interesting meditation on creativity, empathy, and the anxiety of influence. . . Asymmetry is a guidebook to being bigger than ourselves." NPR

"Lisa Halliday’s striking debut is certainly – as the title implies – a sharp examination of the unequal power dynamic between men and women, innocence and experience, fame and aspiration. . . . asking a dizzying number of questions, many to thrilling effect. That it leaves the reader wondering is a mark of its success." The Guardian (UK)

"In her stunning debut novel, Lisa Halliday places three storylines in close proximity, leading to fascinating contrasts. After reading only a few sentences of her intelligent prose (and that dialogue!), you’ll be itching for her next novel, whenever it should come." Refinery29

"A beautiful debut novel . . . Halliday deftly and subtly intersects the two disparate stories, resulting in a deep rumination on the relation of art to life and death." Booklist (starred review)

"It's not only Halliday's ingenious structure but her urgent depictions of post-9/11 anger and Islamophobia that makes Asymmetry such a vital read." INTERVIEW (Spring Preview)

“Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut....A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Deftly combining two stories that are distinctive in style and content, Whiting Award-winner Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry is a stellar piece of writing and a bold debut." —Shelf Awareness

“Lisa Halliday’s debut novel starts like a story you’ve heard, only to become a book unlike any you’ve read. The initial mystery is how its pieces fit together; the lasting one is how she pulled the whole thing off. Deft, funny, and humane, Asymmetry is a profoundly necessary political novel about the place for art in an unjust world.” —Chad Harbach, author of The Art Of Fielding

“Wow. Asymmetry is a rare book in the sense that it is always shocking to read something this good and polished and fully formed, a novel that impossibly seems to be everything at once: transgressive and intimate and expansive, torn from today’s headlines, signifier of the strange moment we now occupy. Somehow this book, this author has all but exploded into the world, fully formed. Lisa Halliday is an amazing writer. Just open this thing, start at the beginning.” —Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children and Alice & Oliver

“Amazing. Ms. Halliday has a unique ability to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. I’m struggling to think of a novel that has had a similar effect on me. Asymmetry is funny, sad, deeply humane, and clearly the product of bold intelligence at work.” —Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds

"Asymmetry is a novel of deceptive lightness and a sort of melancholy joy.  Lisa Halliday writes with tender laugh-aloud wit, but under her formidable, reckoning gaze a world of compelling characters emerges.  She steps onto the literary stage with the energy of a debut novelist and the confidence of a mature writer." —Louise Erdrich, author of LaRose and Future Home of the Living God

"Lisa Halliday’s singular and beautifully-written novel is impossible to put down, and to pin down. It shifts before our eyes from the tale of a literary-world, May-December love affair to the first-person account of an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow Airport. She treats these characters with such integrity and respect they seem corporeal. Nothing, we realize, is as it seems, and it’s deeply affecting to discover not only how Halliday’s narratives resolve but how they connect to one another. She has written a bold, elegant examination of the dynamics of love, power, ambition, and the ways we try to find our place in the world, whether at 25 or 75. Her crisply crafted sentences exude the inviting quiet of an assured artist – all this while posing arresting questions about the very nature of fiction itself." —The Whiting Foundation

Awards and Honors

  • Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best

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