It’s Mister Softee

Namara Smith

  • Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
    Granta, 275 pp, £14.99, March, ISBN 978 1 78378 360 1

In The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs Touchett describes finding Isabel Archer ‘sitting in a dreary room on a rainy day, reading a heavy book and boring herself to death’. She adds, defending herself, ‘You may say I shouldn’t have enlightened her – I should have let her alone. There’s a good deal in that, but I acted conscientiously; I thought she was meant for something better. It occurred to me that it would be a kindness to take her about and introduce her to the world.’ Lisa Halliday’s first novel initially seems agnostic on the question of whether young women should be let alone. The first half of the book is set in New York in the early 2000s. Its narrator, Alice, is sitting on a park bench with a book in her lap, bored, when an elderly man she recognises as a famous writer sits himself next to her and asks what she’s reading: ‘Oh, old stuff, mostly,’ she tells him. The next weekend he’s there again. On the third sunny spring Sunday, he buys her an ice-cream cone from the Mister Softee on the corner; she takes it ‘because it was beginning to drip and in any case multiple-Pulitzer Prize winners don’t go around poisoning people’. She writes down her number and a week later he calls (‘Hello Alice? It’s Mister Softee’) to invite her over to his apartment, in a doorman building on the Upper West Side with double-height windows and a view of the midtown skyline. When she steps inside, he makes her turn out the contents of her handbag, as if to let her know she’s crossing an invisible yet carefully guarded border. He draws her in for a kiss, and she reflects that, at her office, ‘there were no fewer than three National Book Award certificates in his name framed on the lobby wall.’

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