One is the loneliest number in mathematician's debut novel

Apparently everyone wants to read a fictional story about two severely dysfunctional people, as shown by the success of “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” (Pamela Dorman Books, 2010), author and mathematician Paolo Giordano’s debut novel. Millions worldwide have read the book, translated from its original Italian into more than 20 languages. And after reading it, I can see why – I highly recommend it.

The story is told chronologically, beginning in 1983 with the disastrous ski-school adventure of Alice Della Rocca, who represents the first prime number. She falls, nearly dies, and becomes crippled, anorexic and bitter as a result.

The novel then progresses to 1984, when Mattia Balossino, a young schoolboy with no friends, makes a simple mistake with his mentally ill twin sister, Michela. Wanting only to attend one birthday party without Michela, he leaves her on a park bench near a lake by the house of the birthday boy. When he returns after the party, he finds that his sister has vanished. Now we have Mattia, who represents the second prime number, a youngster who grows up to become a mathematically gifted young man who repeatedly cuts himself and lives an isolated life.

At a party as teenagers, Alice and Mattia meet and forge a relationship of sorts. What are we to make of their relationship? They certainly like each other: “They had formed a defective and asymmetrical friendship, made up of long absence and much silence, a clean and empty space where both could come back to breathe.” But it is an unusual friendship – one in which two people are alone, together.

Mattia’s interest in prime numbers (“between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching”) is a metaphor that clearly applies to his relationship to Alice. Mattia even realizes this fact, saying that he and Alice are like “twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other.”

The story is compelling because Alice and Mattia are so profoundly antisocial and isolated that the reader begins to wonder about the whys of their lives. Was Alice already damaged before her skiing accident? Why do they treat the other people in their lives so poorly? Why can’t they see how they are in part to blame for their problems? Then we wonder if, maybe, by some miracle, these two fragile people can form a successful relationship with each other.

Giordano has an intriguing way of leaving the reader hanging at the end of each chapter. Some readers will find this endearing, but others will merely be annoyed. I think it’s a strength, one that draws the reader deeper into the mysteries of the unique story and characters.

The greatest mystery of all is how these characters will live out their lives and perhaps even make some changes after the ending.

“The Solitude of Prime Numbers” does not include discussion questions at the end, but it would make a very good book club selection.

“The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is available at the Los Altos Library.

Leslie Ashmore, a longtime Mountain View resident, is an avid reader who belongs to two book clubs.

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