Review: “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano

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When I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, I had no idea that it was originally published in Italy, had been translated into over 30 languages and had sold over a million copies. The few reviews I read before writing this post were nothing but complimentary, calling real-life particle physicist Giordano a literary genius and an incontrovertible  hottie.

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 At first glance, the novel seems to be a very conventional love story about two people who have been marked by tragedy in their childhood. When she was a plump little girl, Alice used to be forced by her domineering father into taking ski lessons. On one such freezing, very foggy morning, she manages to urinate and defecate into her ski suit, get lost in a fog and lose all sensation in one of her legs. Of course, that means Alice is justified in growing up seething with resentment, taking her revenge upon the world by becoming an extreme anorexic.

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Mattia, a little boy suffering from an undiagnosed variant of autism,  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 mathematical genius with a propensity to self-harm.

Flash forward to the traditionally harrowing high school years, Mattia and Alice go to the same school. Alice is being systematically tortured by the Italian version of Mean Girls, exacerbating her anorexia. Then the main tormentor orders Alice to 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.

While writing this, I keep thinking of those reviews which claimed that every reader of this novel will find small pieces of themselves in it. 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 recognise “Alice’s profound suffering,” but obviously not close enough to help her battle her condition.

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.”

Since I’ve been on a spree of watching Hitchcock movies and listening to Sinatra all day, I can’t help drawing parallels between Solitude and Dean Martin’s Rebel Without A Cause. Except in the latter, James Dean was not only smarter than his obviously 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 parents. To look at your own parents, with all their drooping skin and personal shortcomings, and to realise 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 treat her behaviour as problematic on any level.

There’s no arguing with this depressive emotional position, besides growing up. We all have to die, and that means in the end that the depressives are right. I’m just wondering about the thousands upon thousands of Europeans who (presumably) subscribe to this position, and have turned, by their adulation, this whimpering cub into a literary lion.

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