Book World

Book World: Carolyn See reviews Paolo Giordano's 'The Solitude of Prime Numbers'

By Carolyn See
Friday, April 23, 2010


By Paolo Giordano

Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside

Viking. 271 pp. $25.95

"The Solitude of Prime Numbers" was first published in Italy, where it has sold over 1 million copies. People all over Western Europe have gobbled down this debut novel; hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, Spain and Portugal. The reviews have been more than reverent: "Genius," the Italian newspaper Il Giornale gushed. "Everybody can find in Giordano's book a small piece of himself," and judging by the sales, that must be true.

Add to that, Paolo Giordano, at the age of 27, has recently completed a doctorate in particle physics, and he's an incontrovertible hottie. I don't know what any of this has to do with the quality of his novel, but, the book business being what it is these days, that can only be a blessing.

The novel turns out to be a very old-timey, conventional love story about two individuals who have been marked in their childhoods by tragedy. As a little girl, Alice Della Rocca is bullied by her awful dad into taking a ski lesson on a freezing, very foggy morning. She's forced to gag down boiling hot milk, which she quickly regurgitates; then, on the slope going up, she manages to urinate and defecate into her ski suit, then takes a wrong turn, gets lost in the fog, falls and lays there for a long time, lost and grievously injured, while her father rests, "home again, reading the paper in the warmth of their house." That awful meanie! Of course, Alice is perfectly justified in growing up seething with resentment, spiritually as well as physically maimed, and right, as well, in taking her revenge upon the world by becoming an extreme anorexic.

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Mattia, a little boy almost exactly Alice's age, is growing up across town, imprisoned in a desperately lonely childhood largely because of his twin, Michela, who is developmentally disabled. Mattia's clueless parents persist in sending both children to the same school, so Mattia never gets to play with his classmates and, above all, never gets invited to any birthday parties. When Mattia and Michela finally do get an invitation, Mattia ditches his sister in a public park right next to a turbulent river, telling her to wait a few hours until he comes back. Of course, little Michela is never heard from again. There's nothing for Mattia to do but turn into a deeply troubled mathematical genius.

Flash forward to the traditionally harrowing high school years. Mattia and Alice happen to be going to the same school, and Alice, systematically tormented by Mean Girls who could have come out of an American "After School Special," is made to eat a gumdrop that has been dragged through "balls of dust and tangles of hair," which doesn't help her anorexia very much. Then the main tormentor dictates that Alice find herself a boyfriend. Alice picks Mattia, who may be smart but is utterly lacking in social skills. They kiss at a party, and this experience, though it seems somewhat repugnant to them both, has the effect of making them soul mates for life.

I keep wondering about the Italian critic who claimed that every reader of this novel will find "a small piece of himself." What particular small piece would that be? Alice spends the next 15 years or so sulking in her room, blaming her oaf of a father for her loneliness and depression. When she finally does get a job, it's a transparent plot setup for Alice to punish her high school tormentor. She finally marries a nice-enough man who wants nothing more than to have a normal life with some children in it, but Alice's concave belly is far more dear to her than any hypothetical kid. Her husband is intelligent enough to recognize "Alice's profound suffering," but obviously married life isn't going to work out for them.

Things haven't been going well for Mattia either. He's grown up to be a mathematical genius, but when he gets an offer from a foreign university to take a prestigious research position, even his own mother isn't sorry to see him go: "She hoped with all her might that he would accept, that he would leave this house and that place that he occupied opposite her every evening at dinner, his black hair dangling over his plate and that contagious air of tragedy surrounding him."

Time-honored conventions and assumptions permeate this genre. In "Rebel Without a Cause," for instance, James Dean was not only smarter than his moronic parents, but more special, better in every way. He was better because he was cuter, but he was also better because he suffered more; he had a livelier sense of the sorrows of the human (adolescent) condition. It's a given here that both Alice and Mattia are better, made of entirely finer clay than their clod-parents. To look at your own parents, with all their drooping skin and personal shortcomings, and to realize that odds are pretty good that you'll end up with the same skin and shortcomings is the quintessential adolescent tragedy. Did I mention that Mattia carves up his skin and puts out the flames on stove tops with his bare hands? He manages to be in agony most of the time. And of course, Alice refuses to reproduce.

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