Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Paolo Giordano

Summary:  A prime number is a lonely thing.  It can only be divided by itself or by one; it never truly fits with another.  Alice and Mattia, both "primes," are misfits haunted by early tragedies.  When the two meet as teenagers, they recognize in each other a kindred damaged spirit.  Years later, a chance encounter reunites them and forces a lifetime of concealed emotion to the surface.  But can two prime numbers ever find a way to be together?  This brilliantly conceived and elegantly written debut novel by the youngest winner ever of the prestigious Premio Strega award has sold more than one million copies in Italy.  The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a stunning meditation on loneliness, love, and what it means to be human.  (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:  This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while now, giving me the eyeball and muttering read me, woman at odd intervals so this weekend I finally gave in.  I'll be honest, this book gave me the mixed feels. The writing was compelling, in that, like a river, it just sort of swept me away regardless of how I felt about it.  Sometimes the story was gentle and languid and other times it tossed me around, pushing me up against logs or dragging me under.  That's some powerful writing, but I can't say that I entirely loved the experience and I often thought about just throwing in the towel.  I'll explain a bit further...

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is almost entirely character/relationship driven, with setting barely putting a toe on stage.  In fact, I read three-quarters of the book before I realized most of it took place in Italy.  The where just didn't matter.  What did matter were the characters, their choices and interactions.  The main characters, Alice and Mattia, were two people so very different, broken, and alone.  The story began in their childhood and wound through and around key moments in their lives.  The author described their intermittent high school interactions as "a defective and asymmetrical friendship, made up of long absences and much silence, a clean and empty space where both could come back to breathe when the walls of their school became too close for them to ignore the feeling of suffocating."  I desperately wanted the 'mains' to really find each other (and themselves) and to have someone who could appreciate their differences, love their brokenness, and help them heal.  In some ways, I got what I wanted and in other ways I did not.

Unfortunately, it was the absolute vileness of a certain secondary character and the bullying, sexual situations, and crude subject matter that swirled around them that made me want to throw in the towel.  It was quite unsettling.  Viola, specifically, is a horrid horrid person.  She is like the sexually-aggressive Dolores Umbridge of this book and I couldn't hate her more.  Denis? Well, he's not so much vile as just lonely and confused about his sexuality, but I could have done without most of the details his story provided. To distance myself a bit, I skimmed over anything that got too graphic, but that fact that I kept having to do so made it rather hard to love the book in its entirety. 

One aspect of this book that I found interesting (and it was probably my favorite part of the book) was the way mathematics factored in to the story.  Mattia was exceptionally gifted, especially in math, and often preoccupied with the visual mathematics in the world around him.  Through his musings, the author introduced a concept that I'd never heard of before and that I find fascinating -- that of 'twin' primes.  Here's an thought-provoking excerpt that not only demonstrates what I mean in regards to the mathematical themes in the book but also showcases the author's writing abilities:
Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves.  They hold their place in an infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest.  They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia though they were wonderful.  Sometimes he thought they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they'd been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace.  Other times he suspected that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers but for some reason they couldn't do it.  This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.
In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special.  Mathematicians call them twin primes:  pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching.  Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43.  If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer.  You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny.  Then, just when you're about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly.  There is a common conviction among mathematicians that however far you go, there will always be another two, even if no one can say where exactly, until they are discovered.   
Mind.  Blown.  Such a fascinating concept and (in case you didn't catch it) it's also a not-so-subtle reference to Mattia and Alice's relationship over the years.  If I had to pick a page that best encompassed the entirety of The Solitude of Prime Numbers (minus the sexual elements), well, you just read it.

Booklist called this book "Beautiful and affecting. An intimate psychological portrait of two 'prime numbers'--together alone and along together."  It's an apt description.  However, though I loved the writing and was intrigued by the main characters journey and certain themes, I had a hard time overcoming my revulsion at some of the subject matter.  As such, I don't think I could recommend this book to most people I know.  Whether you like this book or not might depend on how much you fall into the category of "sensitive reader."  You'll have to make that call.

My Rating: 2 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  Move along.  There are a handful of swear words, a variety of sexual themes and situations, instances of self-harm, and triggers for anyone struggling with an eating disorder.

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