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[481] The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano

” Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. He had never told her that. When he imagined confessing these things to her, the thin layer of sweat on his hands evaporated completely and for a good ten minutes he was no longer capable of touching anything. (Ch.21, p.112)

The Solitude of Prime Numbers centers around two misfits: Alice Della Rocca and Mattia Balossino. It’s rather flat but poignant coming-of-age story that spans almost 25 years, from 1983 to 2007. Giordano takes the title from mathematics, which is the passion of one of his main characters, a brainy, emotionally detached boy (and later, man) named Mattia. Although intelligent, his teachers express a peculiar unease with regard to this gifted boy who seems to have no desire to form bonds with anyone. When an incident occurs for which Mattia feels responsible—the disappearance of his twin mentally-defective sister—his life becomes full of guilt, and self-loathing behavior as well. His only interest is mathematics.

The lived the slow and invisible interpenetration of their universes, like two stars gravitating around a common axis, in ever tighter orbits, whose clear destiny is to coalesce at some point in space and time. (Ch.24, p.136)

Alice is one awkward girl, forced into activities by her father that irretrievably renders her crippled and emotionally detached from her family. Unlike Mattia, she is rejected by society, and craving to fit in. She goes to extreme lengths to be normal again. Like Mattia, she has a predilection to harm herself. Eventually, the odd pair crosses paths and becomes frequent acquaintances. While living their lives separately, they are continuously linked to one another and find comfort in one another, without fully understanding the predicaments that each faces.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But whatever it is, I think I like it. (Ch.39, p.227)

Giordano’s debut novel relates the mathematical interpretation of prime numbers to human life. One sees Mattia and Alice as twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. They are two people who never fully assimilate to the society, but acknowledge their own solitude within the other. Their broken foundation during adolescence leads them to a life so lonely, abnormal, and alienated. The novel is a meditation on loneliness, since it follows the aftermath of their adolescent challenges and demonstrates no changes in their lives. The best part is the reflection on how the two tragic figures are so close and yet so far. I’m not overly fond of neither of them, but Giordano is to be commended for his contemplative writing style. He communicates through mathematics beautifully and that is what keeps the novel together.

271 pp. Viking. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

6 Responses

  1. I didn’t find either character particularly likeable but thought the book was good. I like how it took a good hard look at alienation and loneliness and I too liked how the math fit into things.

    • The mathematical interpretation of human life is what makes this bright, otherwise I find it slow at some parts. The dialogue between the two main characters are overwritten.

  2. I felt the same way about this novel; I really like how Giordano weaved mathematics into the story (I’d never heard of twin primes before, but the concept was really fascinating), but neither character was very likable, and the story felt a bit flat to me.

    • I feel the book is very flat past the adolescent years. I understand they are both trapped in the past and feel very guilty. But that’s all, nothing in the second half of the book adds to the merit.

  3. […] [481] The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano […]

  4. Thank you for this review Matt. It is a book, the cover and title of which intrigued me when I first saw it in the bookstore — when it first came out. And just yesterday I saw it in paperback at a very reduced price in my local drugstore. I never bought it, and after reading your review I think I will stick to your final recommendation, namely, READ it — but BORROW it.

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