Asymmetry: A Novel

by Lisa Halliday

Paperback, 2018

Call number




Simon & Schuster (2018), Edition: Reprint, 304 pages


"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. A debut novel about love, luck, and the inextricability of life and art, from 2017 Whiting Award winner Lisa Halliday" --… (more)

Media reviews

An exceptional debut examines imbalances in love and geopolitics.
Halliday’s structure shows exquisite control of leitmotif and patterning; each half gradually intensifies in emotion to reach a devastating climax. The weakest note is the epilogue, a transcript of a Desert Island Discs interview,
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in which Blazer is reported to have won the Nobel Prize, approves of the method of the novel we are close to finishing, and attempts to seduce Kirsty Young, the presenter. I see why it is there: to make it easier for the reader to connect the two narratives that have gone before, but it lacks their lightness of touch. Blazer’s record choices do, however, make for a great playlist, and listening to them will call further attention to the ambitious music of this exceptional debut.
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3 more
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. Through its fractured structure and daring incompleteness, it also explores the unreliability of memory,
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the accidents of history and the exercise and understanding of creativity. Most of all, it wonders whether we can ever “penetrate the looking-glass” of our own personality to imagine another consciousness – a question as relevant to human relationships as it is to novel writing. (...) Can any of us escape our own perspective? What are the risks, if we do not? What is art for, and how do we fit our lives around it? This is a debut asking a dizzying number of questions, many to thrilling effect. That it leaves the reader wondering is a mark of its success.
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And that is the magic of this exquisite, impressive book: the way it plays with influence and assumption. As Ezra notes, “Our memories are no more reliable than our imaginations, after all. But I’m the first to admit it can be irresistible, contemplating what’s ‘real’ versus
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‘imagined’ in a novel.” (...) 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.
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The leap from the novel’s first section to its second is so great, and yet so intuitively logical, that it forces the reader to rethink the Alice section entirely: It is now clear that she is not a version of Lisa Halliday, but just one of the many voices Halliday can invent, if she chooses. In
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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.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member chrisblocker
"As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again."

I think Asymmetry may have a tough time finding its audience. It’s a difficult book for the casual reader in some ways: the prose is simple enough,
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but the structure is entirely a different matter. I think most readers are going to say “what the hell was that about?” while other more astute but critical readers will say “that was hella pretentious.”

The “problem” rests in that Asymmetry is three very distinct stories tied together by the thinnest of threads. “But there’s no thread at all,” many readers will say. There is and there isn’t. You see, it’s all very metafictional and I’m all about the meta. In Part I we have a young woman, Alice, from Massachusetts who works as an editor, dreams of living in Europe, and develops a romantic relationship with a much older National-Book-Award-winning author. The author of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday, is herself a former editor from Massachusetts who now lives in Italy. Whether truly based on the author's personal experiences or not, it is logical for a reader to assume that Alice is autobiographical. And therein lies the brilliance of Asymmetry because we do not really know Lisa Halliday’s story, we only make assumptions based on the few facts we do know. But then Halliday goes in the opposite direction. In a time when we too often question the writer’s ability to write from any other perspective than their own, Halliday turns the book on its head and writes a very different story.

A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.

In Part II, we’re introduced to Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers for an entire weekend. He reflects on his back and forth relationship with Iraq and America and with his family, caught between two worlds. It’s natural for the reader to expect some sort of connection to exist between Amar’s story and Alice’s. The reader is busy looking for it and any direct connection that exists is so thin the reader is most likely to miss it: at the end of Amar’s story, we briefly see a woman who may or may not be Alice. That’s it. But the connection goes beyond that, because if that woman is Alice, then she’ll go on to be the writer who writes Amar’s story.

Halliday nails the voice of Amar, proving that a privileged woman from Massachusetts can write from a perspective that she has no first-hand experience with. That's not to say Halliday doesn't understand Amar. Her story is reflected in Alice's as it is in Amar's.

...even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there's no getting around the fact that she's always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can't see yourself in a reflection doesn't mean no one can.

Yet Asymmetry is so meta that I'm wondering if there's not more to it. For instance, in the opening pages, the young editor is reading a book that itself bears similarity to the novel of Part II, a novel “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 quotation marks?” So is Alice reading the book that she herself has yet to write? Or is Alice not the author? Is the fictional Alice perhaps reading the book that her own creator Lisa Halliday wrote? Only now, as I write this, am I drawing the connection between “Alice” and her “looking-glass.” Am I looking too much into this? I'll just leave it at this and let the reader infer their own conclusion.

As I read this novel, I occasionally caught glimpses of other works and authors I have read, all of them Man Booker nominees: Eleanor Catton, Kamila Shamsie, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith… There’s a strong similarity in the tone and structure of the works. I will not be the least surprised if Asymmetry is not on the longlist to be announced in a few months. It's not a perfect book and it may fail in conveying its message to the vast majority of readers, but Asymmetry is such an intelligently written and relevant book that I'm sure someone will take notice.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
Asymmetry comprises 2 novellas and a vignette which to me seem to each stand independent of the others, and by independent I mean they have no connection to one another. I got the feeling the vignette was intended to knit together the novellas, but still I could not discern the connection. This
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book is written by a very smart writer who has written about very smart people, and I am willing to accept that I may not have understood the connection. That said, I may not be a genius but I believe most people would consider me to be of average or better intelligence; I think it is fair to say that more than half the population would share with me the inability to connect these stories. If I was in a lit course and asked to connect them I could write a convincing essay on a post 9-11 world view based solely on people's reactions to Jews and Muslims, with that identity being of far less import to the Jews and Muslims themselves than to the White Christians who actually control what happens in the world. I would be stretching though. There are whiffs of that messaging but I don't think the author really makes that connection, and I am not entirely sure she was trying to make that connection. All this is to say that I decided to review the novellas independently because that is how they read to me.

Both novellas are spectacularly well written. Halliday writes like an editor, and that is a good thing, The stories are perfectly crafted. There is not a spare word, no sentences that are beautiful as diamonds but which do not advance the story. It is clear that Halliday kills her darlings, and I love that in a writer. I love a painting or a sculpture because of how it makes me feel or see the world, but I can spend an hour enthralled by the brushstrokes or nontraditional perspective of a work that as a whole doesn't move me. I revere the work but I also (and nearly equally) revere the craft. The writing craft here succeeds like nobody's business. It is some of the best prose I have ever read, I can see why she and Philip Roth-one of my favorite literary craftsmen-connected. If it were simply about craft, this would have been for me a 5-star read..

When you wield the editor's pen like a scalpel I imagine you leave more words in the bin than on the page. Maybe that is why Halliday didn't make this into two novels? Maybe the more she wrote the less stayed in the manuscript. There was more I wanted to know. Each novella could have been fleshed out (not padded) and would have been more fulfilling for it. I am sure she felt like she said everything she wanted to say with these in the shorter form, but as a reader she did not say everything I wanted to read. Both novellas felt like they had a spectacular beginning and middle and no end at all. I appreciate a writer who makes me do a lot of the work, but in this case I think she left too much open-ended.

A couple notes about the stories themselves. The first, clearly a roman a clef about Halliday's years as Roth's lover, made me feel like a voyeur, and not in an entirely good way. I really enjoyed it, but I felt a little dirty. I know he gave the book his blessing, and God knows he has shared more intimate details about himself than Halliday does here, but it was still a bit squicky for me. It also bothered me that I never fully understood what drew Alice to Ezra. The basis for Ezra's attraction was clear (and not just because we all know Roth was a dirty old man, even when he was still a young man) as she gave him youth and humor and other things that dwindle late in life, and she was his legacy in a way (his not being a father-sort of - was mentioned a lot). I guess I felt like she was very revealing about him, but did not let us know Alice. If she had done that, she would have had that novel, and the story would have been more successful. One quibble, there is a scene where Ezra teaches Alice how to pronounce "Camus" correctly (she has pronounced it as rhyming with "Seamus.") Really? Alice went to Harvard and worked at a major publishing house. She would have heard Camus' name pronounced aloud dozens if not hundreds of times, and she would know how to pronounce French words even if she had never heard them. If Halliday wanted to convey that Ezra was an intellectual and literary guide to Alice, this was a silly device. I assume it was an inside joke, but it bugged me.

The second novella was really intriguing. I love the idea of entering the memories of this brilliant man, Iraqi but not very, Muslim but not very, defined and limited by others' identification of him as no more than an Iraqi Muslim. I wanted more from this story too, more about Amar's family, more about his friends and his life in America, not just his connections to Iraq. What was here was exceptional, but it was not enough.

The vignette -- I don't know. it was fine. The inside Scottish jokes and a rundown of what I imagine might really have been Roth's desert island disks were vaguely amusing. His stories of his father mirrored in some ways the immigrant tale of Amar's family. Again, I think it was supposed to tie together the stories, and that did not work for me. Actually, this rash of books with dual stories that do not connect at the end in a gratifying way, this book as well as the last Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer books jump to mind, is starting to get on my nerves.

(ETA: It has been pointed out to me that Alice, the character in the first novella is identified as the writer of the second in that final vignette and elsewhere. I completely missed that. Still, this felt like parts of two unfinished novels.)

In the end I enjoyed the read. I thought about things is a way I have not done before. I liked the stories but felt they were incomplete. She left me wanting more, and there are much worse offenses for a writer.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Totally did not get this book. I had read such rave reviews of it and was dying to read it but it just fell short. I liked the first part the best, and could clearly see the asymmetry in the relationship between the old acclaimed writer and the young woman just starting out in publishing. But just
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as I'd formed a connection to these characters they were abandoned, in favor of an Iraqi being detained by British Customs and his memories of Iraq. It took me quite a while just to figure out what was going on, and I never really cared about him; and then all of a sudden Ezra, the Philip Roth-like character, is being interviewed.

Writing fine, but nothing to write home about.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
The first of the three distinct stories was compelling, but the other two stories didn't seem to connect and didn't have characters that held my interest. Admittedly, I skimmed the 2nd two stories.
LibraryThing member bblum
Alice, a young low level editor goes down the rabbit hole entranced by a powerful older man, Ezra Blazer an award winning author. The books structure, three parts with a book within the book, and play on authors, passages from real books with a background of Ezra Blazer's music provide musing
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opportunities for the reader to ponder what it all means. There is a book within a book and then Ezra's Desert Island Discs playlist at the end. Is the music revealing? I'm listening to it now. Yes, it is asymmetric.
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LibraryThing member franoscar
Could be spoilers. This is an OK book. Maybe a little too literate. (I'm confused, but I think this is the book where the two brothers both can quote from Stephen Crane's writing.) It is a little frustrating and a sad book but only sad as reality is sad.
LibraryThing member kgramer
3.5 stars. I liked all three parts of this novel, some better than others. I think at the end, I wanted more of Alice's story and more of Amar's story, but didn't get either.

I received an arc through a Goodreads giveaway.
LibraryThing member bookfest
An unusual novel in three parts. The first focuses on the relationship of a young woman, an editorial assistant in a publishing company, with a much older, successful writer. One can see the imbalance in their relationship as he dominates her financially and intellectually and she gradually becomes
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his somewhat unwitting caretaker. The second focuses on a young Iraqi American academic and his relationship with his family and home country. The closing, which supposedly shows the relationship between the first two, is a radio interview with the elderly writer. Frankly, I didn't see the connection except that there are significant imbalances of power in each piece. Some beautiful prose.
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LibraryThing member msf59
"Some of us wage wars. Others write books. The most delusional ones write books. We have very little choice other than to spend our waking hours trying to sort out and make sense of the perennial pandemonium. To forge patterns and proportions where they don’t actually exist..."

This is an
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inventive, offbeat novel, that is broken up into 3 sections. The first is a quirky, May-September romance and the second focuses on an Iraqi-American man , being unfairly detained at Heathrow Airport. The similarities slowly begin to reveal themselves, as the narrative advances and it becomes even more interesting, during the unexpected coda.
Obviously this one, is not for everyone, and that is reflected in the mixed reviews it has received. It did work for me and I did admire this author's ambition and craftsmanship. A talent to watch.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
This novel, divided into 3 parts, is interesting in its form. I just don't think that it quite met its potential. Now, perhaps I missed something, but I did not get much from any particular section of the book. Themes of chaos, connection, cultural divides are clear-cut. I just found myself
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reluctantly waiting for more to happen. Oh well.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This was a very interesting book. I had seen this on some best of book lists so I decided to read it. I try to not know too much before hand about the books I read. As I found out after I read the book, there is a back story that many people mention in the book reviews. The book has 3 separate
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stories so being a novel I looked for a connection between the stories. The title Asymmetry (lack of equality) gives you hint that the thread might be hidden. In terms of the stories themselves, the first has Alice a 27 year old editor for a Manhattan publishing firm having an affair with 71 year old Ezra Blazer a world famous author. Suffice it to say that I was impressed with the Halliday's writing. The asymmetry of their relationship along with the parts that connected kept my interest. The ending of the story had me wanting to know more about them. The 2nd story was completely different. Amar an Arab-American is being detained at Heathrow Airport in December 2008. This is told in the first person and the story and writing were terrific. You really get a clearer understanding of the impact of the war on the Iraqi people told from the perspective of someone in both cultures. Of course as the reader you are looking for connection to the first story. Not very clear but because both stories((120 and 100 pages) are long enough to connect to the characters , I enjoyed each immensely. The 3rd story was short and brought the reader back to the Ezra Blazer character. At that point you saw the connection but unlike other books of this genre(metafiction) it was not so obvious. This is a book that you will enjoy for the writing and the stories but if you also read the reviews and get Halliday's background, you will see it from a different perspective. As with all art,(music, painting, sculpture etc.) you sometimes need a deeper look at what the author is doing. That is why there are reviews and discussions about artistic endeavors. I usually don't need this with fiction but in this case it added to my enjoyment of the book. Don't want to give too much away. For me it totally worked. Would definitely read her next book.
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LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
When he first sees her, author Ezra Blazer falls for Alice, a young woman working at a publishing house. Their lives could not be more different, just as the age and the experiences they have. But nevertheless, their love develops slowly and again and again, Alice is astonished by Ezra’s
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generosity and affection. However, when it comes to his friends, Alice is not presented as his partner; she is just someone he works with, he even invents a new name for her. In Halliday’s second chapter, we meet Amar, a young American of Iraqi origin who is detained at Heathrow Airport and waiting to be released to spend a couple of hours with a friend before boarding anew and travel to his parents’ home country. In the very last chapter, we meet Ezra again, being interviewed and talking about his love for music and women.

Looking at the novel as a whole is simply impossible. The three parts differ so much that I simply cannot talk about them in general. I liked the first part about Alice’s and Ezra’s love most. The way it develops is quite classy, you get to know Ezra as an elderly artist who downright courting Alice, on the one hand, by offering small and large presents and introducing her to his world of art. On the other hand, however, he is not only older but also more powerful, he dictates the rules of their partnership; they are never equals, she is dependent on his kindness and willingness to see her. When he comes up with the ridiculous idea of giving her a new name and resenting her just as a woman he works with but not as a friend, she obviously feels offended, but nonetheless accepts his wish. There is a clear asymmetry in their relationship.

This asymmetry in power is also present in the second part where Amar is fully dependent on the British authorities who seem to act rather arbitrarily. He is kept waiting for hours, never knowing what is going to happen next, if he will ever be granted access to the country or what they accuse him of actually. If he started questioning their procedure, he’d only risk setting them against him and thus reducing his chances of leaving the airport. While waiting, Amar is left alone with his thoughts and memories, memories of long gone love stories, but also memories of Iraq and the war that has been raging there for years and the shifting powers depending on who is in charge.

In the last part, Ezra reappears, now in the role as interviewee. Again, he shows his charms in talking to the young female journalist with whom he flirts openly. Interestingly, she has a plan for the interview but has to give it up and to follow his rules. Another case of asymmetry.

Lisa Halliday really knows how to captivate the reader. Her story is exceptionally well constructed; the fine imbalances are never addressed openly but present throughout the narration. She easily enthralled me and kept me reading on.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
I don't get it. I can't understand the connections among the three stories.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Dull, not particularly insightful and although I enjoyed the bits about Iraq, I don't know how much of it is true. Nothing happens except that Ezra gets older and sicker and Amar, while his detention is undeniably unfair, still makes his flight. Quotidian details that don't add up to much.
LibraryThing member anitatally
I always feel a little bit dumb when I just don't get why everyone loves a certain book. But this one I just didn't get - too subtle for me, I guess.
LibraryThing member elenaj
Wow, this is a hard no. Something about the simple narration, the naif-like main character, and the much older and more powerful love interest made everything about this feel creepy. (She is literally named Alice. wtf.)
LibraryThing member KimMeyer
There are some books you can recommend widely. This isn't that. I don't know how to explain this one or who I would possibly recommend it to, but it worked for me.
LibraryThing member Charon07
I am nonplussed by this book. I liked the first part very much, though despite its length, it has the characteristics of short stories that I dislike: It seemed fragmentary, a vignette, lacking the development of plot or of characters that novels offer. I wouldn’t have caught on to how the three
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parts relate to one another if not for the “book club” questions at the end of my e-book edition. And while that seems like an intellectually clever little trick, for me it lacked the emotional resonance that would have given it substance and made it transcend being anything but a clever device. I am puzzled about what some readers seem to find so thought-provoking about it. I’m left feeling that I missed something very significant that would have given this book more weight if I caught it.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
I bailed on page 110 because this story was so disjointed. I wanted to read a more linear story, one that did not go off into a million tangents.
LibraryThing member Venarain
Great first section but ultimately didn't finish it
LibraryThing member djh_1962
This is a clever book. I'm not sure my admiration for its cleverness quite overcame the disconcerting shift to an apparently disconnected narrative at the start of its second section (one makes the connection pretty quickly but the narrative is in any event less compelling) or the self indulgence
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of the third (although the tone of Roth from 'Operation Shylock' transposed to a 'Desert Island Discs' setting is fitfully amusing). I'd absolutely read Lisa Hallidays' next book though.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Liked the writing and the narratives, but very puzzled. There are two main stories, not intertwined, just one first and then the next. I’m sure the stories are supposed to relate to each other but I don’t understand how. But I enjoyed each of the two on their own merits, so no harm done. I
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think this is Halliday’s only book, I look forward to more. And I also look forward to my book club meeting in a couple weeks, when we can discuss how the two stories are related.
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LibraryThing member strandbooks
2019 has not been the best for books so far. I saw this book on so many “best-of-2018” lists, but it just didn’t work for me. There are 2 novellas with very different characters and settings that are slightly tied together. If I hadn’t read a couple reviews I probably would have missed the
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vague tie-in. It also felt very overwritten, like the author had written a notebook full of philosophical sayings about life and then tried to discreetly place them throughout her novel
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
3.5 I did not feel an emotional connection to this book, but I did find it intellectually stimulating. Something very different, very original and elegantly conceived. Two novellas, which are written very differently, the first a famous author, an older man, already successful, his life near the
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end. A younger woman, Alice, in her late twenties, an editor, still trying to find herself, her life just beginning to unfold. They have an affair, and keep in mind the title, it is very fitting, their she's and life experiences do not match, but they both love baseball, though different teams, it is a common denominator in their relationship. Many quotes from different literary novels, fill these pages. Love and art.

The second novel takes a different turn, seems totally unrelated, though there are some common denominators. Alice and the looking glass, a mirror by which one sees oneself. But how do these connect? The third is an interview, the interviewee Ezra and it is here we find the connection, though one is never write sure if they are putting this together correctly. I liked the challenge of this. All sections are wonderfully written, the prose quite brilliantly conceived. Every once in a while I find it stimulating to read a book where one has to think, where everything is not apparent. That was this book.

Of course it helped immeasurably to read this with my two amazing reading buddies, Esil and Angela, though our rating varied somewhat with this one. It was nice to have others to bounce ideas and thoughts off of, see if we were all putting this together the same. I think that like Ali Smith, and her writing, this is challenging but worthwhile. The funny thing is that if sometimes I feel frustrated with these novels, not sure where they are going, I also find that these are the novels that linger, that provoke new thoughts, new meanings, even the day after one has finished.

ARC from Edelweiss.
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LibraryThing member jldarden
I guess I didn't really get this one or was distracted at times during my listening. Nothing much seemed to happen or conclude satisfactorily. Can't recommend.




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