This is a light, easy, compelling read – much lighter and easier than one might expect from an author with a Ph.D in physics. While the number symbolism (in the title and occasionally elsewhere) is my least favorite part of the book, it is easy enough to avoid contemplating mathematics and focus instead on Giordano’s quirky and well-drawn characters. This is almost a young adult novel, and its quirkiness and tone (light overall, with the presence of tragedy always lurking) remind me of The Fault in our Stars – but this novel is entirely appropriate for adults as well.
The two protagonists – Alice and Mattia – share the task of providing the novel’s point of view. The point of view usually alternates between the two of them chapter by chapter, although the point of view overall is omniscient, and secondary characters pop up every so often to share their opinions on things – a practice that I found unnecessary and didn’t like much. Both Alice and Mattia were deeply traumatized when they were children. Alice hated to ski but was forced to take lessons because her father wanted her to be a champion, and one morning in dangerously thick fog she got separated from the group. She tries to ski back down the mountain to the lodge, but the fog obscures her sense of direction and she falls into a crevasse and breaks her leg. This scene is narrated in the first chapter and is extremely well written – it’s the best first chapter I can remember reading in a long time. We aren’t told exactly what happens after she falls (except that her leg is broken but she is largely unaware of it – probably because of shock and the analgesic effects of snow and ice), but when she returns in chapter 3, several years later, she has a pronounced limp and a scar on her hip.
When Mattia was a child, he had a mentally handicapped twin sister, Michela. His parents used to joke that he had sucked up all the nourishment in the womb and had therefore received more than his fair share of intelligence while his sister had none. They were joking, but Mattia always felt a sense of guilt surrounding his sister. He also resents the fact that he is usually excluded from parties and other events because his classmates know that if they invite Mattia they will have to endure Michela’s presence as well. One day, though, a friend invites both of them to his birthday party, and on the walk to the party, Mattia suddenly detours into a small park, sits Michela down, and tells her to wait there for him. He goes to the party but stays only an hour, his guilt over abandoning Michela gnawing at him. When he gets to the park, though, she is gone. The police search the area and dredge the small creek that flows through the park, but they find no sign of her at all. Mattia’s guilt mushrooms into something completely unmanageable at this point, of course, and he deals with it by cutting his hands. He cuts his hands for the first time with a piece of a broken bottle on the day that Michela goes missing, and whenever he is in a situation that forces him to make an emotional commitment of some kind, he cuts (or sometimes burns) himself again. It’s almost as if his guilt is telling him that he has already had a close relationship and he ruined it, rejected it – and that therefore he is forbidden from having any close relationships in the future.
Alice and Mattia meet in high school. Alice has recently been inducted into the “in crowd” (you don’t want to know what she has to do to get there – it’s gross!), and the Queen Bee of this group, Viola, has decided that it is time for Alice to kiss a boy. Forced to survey her options and choose someone, Alice chooses Mattia, and Viola orchestrates their kiss at a party. This rendezvous doesn’t go as Viola planned it, but it does lead to a connection between Alice and Mattia that follows them well into adulthood. This connection is far from certain, though. Mattia is completely withdrawn, channeling all of his efforts into academics and spending time with his friend Denis but never really opening up, even to him. Alice is less isolated – although she is ejected from her clique after the failed hookup – and every so often she approaches Mattia out of nowhere and assertively demands that he do something for her (for example: remove her tattoo with a knife. Don’t worry, he doesn’t do it.)
If The Solitude of Prime Numbers were an 18th or early 19th-century novel, it would have a subtitle that said, “In Which All Adults Are Fucking Clueless.” There is not a single adult in this novel that ever does anything to help Alice or Mattia – not one, ever. Alice’s mother is dying (and later dies) and her father is distant, off-putting and harsh, while Mattia’s parents never fully forgive him for abandoning Michela. The staff of the Italian school system does not come across well in this novel either. With the exception of one teacher who makes Mattia sit in the middle of a circle of classmates and then gives a speech about how Mattia should talk about his problems instead of bottling up inside him, no school employee ever seems inclined to intervene or help either of these kids. Mattia cuts his hand in biology class with a scalpel; even this act goes unnoticed. While I question the plausibility of their profound isolation, the fact that both Alice and Mattia are deeply alone certainly helps to push these characters to the extremes they have to reach in order for Giordano’s novel to succeed.
And Giordano’s novel does succeed. While I enjoyed the opening chapters more than the second half of the novel, overall I was engrossed in it and admired the author’s patience and detail in sketching out the lives of these two tragic characters. The ending is not a happy one, though it’s not completely unhappy either, and I can think of any number of “easy” endings that Giordano could have chosen over the more subtle, silent one he chose. I wish he had stayed away from his mathematical metaphors – the idea that Alice and Mattia are “twin primes,” etc.), but, as I mentioned earlier, these references are not excessive and don’t dominate the novel. I’m glad that I discovered this author this week and look forward to reading his other novel, The Human Body, soon.