The Solitude of Prime Numbers
Paolo Giordano
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Buy *The Solitude of Prime Numbers* by Paolo Giordano online

The Solitude of Prime Numbers
Paolo Giordano
Pamela Dorman Books
288 pages
March 2010
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Paolo Giordano's novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, opens with two tragedies, one that leaves Alice lame and with an eating disorder, and the other, a psychologically damaging event which leaves Mattia with a desire to withdraw from the world, to cut himself whenever reality impinges on his solitude. Giordano follows the children as they enter primary and the secondary school, become friends, then separate and lead the sort of fractured life that profoundly damaged people tend to have – emotionless, withdrawn, and stubbornly obsessive.

Alice becomes an assistant photographer, and her occupation lends itself to Giordano's method of exposition. The text is provided to us in small chunks, each snapshot chapter only a few pages long at best, and often shorter. When Alice and Mattia are together, time slows down and the chunks intersperse and overlap, but when they are apart years might go by in the space of a few pages. Each character has been significantly ruptured by the events of their childhood, and the attraction to one another lies in the shared belief that the other might be capable of making them whole. Though this is not expressed for quite some time in the novel, both Alice and Mattia seem to awaken in each other's presence, and when they are separated, fall into a stupor.

Unfortunately, too much of the novel has them apart. Mattia is a mathematical genius, and it seems that all he knows how to do - and is comfortable with - is calculate mathematical problems, compulsively working on problems night after night. He achieves great satisfaction in writing at the bottom of a page of completed equations the words “QED”, and from it believes that a little more of the world has been placed in order. Unspoken is his desire to completely order the world, to make of it a rigorous series of equations and answers so that tragedies such as the one that struck him as a child, and the problems Alice poses (love, family, potential for empathy, sympathy and harmony with another; the kindness of another), might never occur. He calculates at one stage that the best description for himself and Alice is that of twin primes, that being two primes separated by a single even digit. These twin primes share nothing other than the fact that they are primes and near to one another. That, for Mattia, is as close as he can stand to be.

Giordano's central thesis for the novel seems to be that the decisions of seconds determine the unfolding of one's life. Over time, Mattia and Alice recognize the instances where, by choosing incorrectly (i.e. missing an opportunity) or refusing to choose correctly (i.e. inactivity, the blight of both), the trajectory of their lives has been plotted. The two are knocked down by life as children and never recover; they are stunted, insular and isolated as adults, and it would not be unfair to say that they are phantoms waiting merely to die. They are at times gripped with wonder at their lives – not at the beauty of it, or the potential – but merely that it seems to be, still, existing, and that it will all go on in this miserable greyness until they die.

Alice meets and marries a doctor, Fabio. One of the great weaknesses of the novel is that we can never understand Fabio's attraction to her. Alice, like Mattia, is a porcelain doll, paper-thin and empty on the inside, and the slightest tap creates fissures and cracks. She is hollow inside, airless, and possesses nothing other than a continuing existence. Why, then, would Fabio – who we are told, again and again, is smart, handsome, kind, considerate, professionally successful and personally secure – have the slightest attraction to her? She is not a trophy wife (she is anorexic and possesses little in the way of a career) and neither is she particularly charming or graceful. Indeed she is generally stubbornly silent and seeks to conquer everyone with her passive aggressive behavior.

“With detached curiosity she observed the rebirth of her weaknesses, her obsessions. This time she would let them decide, since she hadn't been able to do anything anyway. Against certain parts of yourself you remain powerless, she said to herself, as she regressed pleasurably to the time when she was a girl.”
This is Alice in a nutshell, and it sums up why, for the most part, both Mattia and Alice are unbelievable as people. Giordano seems to believe that a mistake can shape a life, and in some ways they can, but it is really the active choices Alice and Mattia make which shapes the catastrophe of their adults lives. A novel is not required, of course, to show only those who triumph against adversity, but in a novel where we are expected to sympathize with these two characters, we must first be given a reason. Giordano relentlessly avoids examining what is beneath the surface of these two because, as we come to discover for ourselves, there is nothing but surface, and even that is too thin to withstand even the most cursory of examinations. Real life, if you can excuse the phrase, is murky, messy, and requires participation, even on an introverted level. Alice and Mattia do not exist the second you look away from them, and it seems that Giordano views this as an inevitability of their conditions. Because something is sad does not make it true; because something is melancholy, or difficult, or shown in a novel, also does not make it true. Mattia and Alice's problems, and their handling of them, are in fact choices, though Giordano insistently declares otherwise.

The minor characters of the novel, such as Alice's boss or Mattia's university colleagues, are drawn better because we are given less with which to fill them in. As often happens, broad strokes allow the reader to create an outline they find most appealing, and Giordano proves quite adept at providing just enough - and never any more - than is needed to make this happen. Alice's boss, Crozza, realizing that she is (even more than normal) in a state of extreme withdrawal, is described this way:

He felt a furious sense of powerlessness, because he played no part in Alice's life, but by God she did in his, like a daughter whose name he hadn't been able to choose.
How much we learn about Crozza in this small sentence! His thoughts are wholly identifiable and add to the melancholy and sadness of Alice's existence in a positive way. We learn more about how she faces the world in this snippet than we do from a hundred pages of following her thoughts and (mis)deeds. Happily, Giordano does provide many such instances, but by and large the care and craft with which he attends to his minor characters is destroyed by the endless blankness of his protagonists.

Toward the end of the piece Alice thinks to herself of her connection with Mattia, noting that,

“Because she and Mattia were united by an invisible, elastic thread, buried under a pile of meaningless things, a thread that could exist only between two people like themselves: two people who had acknowledged their own solitude within the other.”
True, perhaps, but the rest of the novel proves this statement (which comes late, and seems to be a revelation for Alice) false. On the one hand, if we are to believe Giordano, then the connection the two feel for the other's damaged parts should create an almost magnetic unity, one that forms easily, quickly, and cannot be broken. But this doesn't occur, which leaves us to reject his primary thesis – and thus the novel.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a novel flawed by its main premise, without ever realizing that this is the case. Giordano argues one thing while showing another, without making the connection that these issues are in fact diametrically opposed. That damaged and withdrawn people such as these exist is without question; that they exist in the manner shown is undoubtedly the problem, because we cannot believe the central conceit of the work.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Damian Kelleher, 2010

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