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.

Review: “The Family” by Mario Puzo and Carol Gino

The Family

Let me begin by saying that I am a die-hard Mario Puzo fan. Unlike a lot of people, I was introduced to his writing through The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer brilliance of The Godfather, a book so insanely popular it created an entire subgenre in American literature. Culturally speaking, it was one of the most influential film series until a young English boy arrived at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Nevertheless, here I will be talking about Puzo’s last book, The Family, which was completed after his death (July 2, 1999) by his longtime companion, novelist Carol Gino. It is the part adventure saga, past historical romance that Puzo reportedly spent the last 15 years of his life researching. Unfortunately, while the research is excellent, the novel is not.

The story centres on one of history’s most fascinating families, the Borgias. It begins in 1492 as Rodrigo Borgia, utilizing the bribery and political intrigue that were to subsequently mark his reign, becomes Pope Alexander VI. Quickly, Alexander moves to consolidate his family’s power, and thereby its future, by placing his four illegitimate children in positions of authority and privilege. The children, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofre, are simultaneously spoiled and corrupted by their father, who is portrayed as a forerunner of the Mafia dons Puzo had previously written about.

Yet neither the Pope nor his children ever realize their full potential as rich historical characters. Although all of them played prominent roles in Italy’s history, none of them rose above cardboard stature in the novel. Their lives, which were dominated by murder, intrigue, war, rape and even incest, are presented in The Family with soap-opera dialogue in scenes that become increasingly repetitious. At no time do the characters come alive; at no point do they take over the novel. In an effort to portray the historical richness of the Renaissance, the book is stuffed with unnecessary details. Time after time, scenes are presented that add nothing to the central characters or the story itself other than to accommodate the appearance of such historical figures as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, da Vinci and the fanatical Florentine monk Savonarola. Regrettably, the novel fails at even this level.

The Family does not read like a Mario Puzo novel, even a lesser one. A work of such historical depth requires strong, interesting dialogue and even stronger characters to deliver it–the very qualities that always raised Puzo’s work to a higher plane. Neither exists here.

So we are left with two questions. How much of this novel did Mario Puzo actually write? How badly did his talent atrophy during the years of illness that preceded his death? In a touching afterword, Carol Gino writes lovingly of her long relationship with Puzo. She also informs us of his longstanding fascination with the Borgias and the years of research he devoted to what he hoped would be his finest novel. On the final page of the book, Gino tells how she came to complete it.

Two weeks before he died, though his heart was failing, Mario was completely lucid. And one day, as I was sitting in his study across from his desk, he reached down and pulled a bunch of pages, handwritten in red felt marker on yellow lined paper, from the bottom drawer of his desk. I thought it was something from Omerta, but it wasn’t. “Read it,” he said, and handed it to me.

And as I read I began to cry. It was the last chapter of the Borgia book.

“Finish it,” he said. “Promise me.”

And so I did.

I feel like a complete bitch saying that Mario Puzo would have been better served had Gino returned those pages to the desk drawer. But yeah.