Book Review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is an Italian novel (I read it in English) which came highly recommended to me by Christie, the owner of the Gallery Bookshop. She generally has good taste in books[1. She also recommended The Sparrow, which is one of my all time favourite books ever.], and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with this recommendation. I should note that this review does include some spoilers about the book, including a discussion about the way in which it ends, because it’s hard to talk about some of the issues without bringing these plot points up. I promise, this post will still be here after you’ve read the book.

It’s a book which has disability as a central theme, and while a lot of reviews make a point of talking about how the characters are ‘damaged’ and belong together because of their ‘brokenness,’ I think it’s a lot more complex than that. They aren’t drawn to each other because of their disabilities, but because of other things, larger parts of their personalities and shared experiences. This is a common false assumption people make when they see two people with disabilities in a relationship together, that they belong together because of their disabilities, because no one else wants them, or no one else understands them. It’s not like two people with disabilities could be drawn to each other for other reasons, of course; we are our disabilities, right?

The book basically opens with the skiing accident that changes Alice’s life. She loathes skiing and is terrified of it but is pressured into it by her father, and I almost read the accident as a welcome escape; now she doesn’t have to ski anymore. She develops into a kind of sad and withdrawn teen not because of the injuries to her leg that force her to walk with a limp, but because of family pressures, the constant reminders from her father that she should do better, that she is a disappointment and a failure.

Mattia is a twin who lost his sister. Literally; his sister was neuroatypical and he abandons her in a park so that he isn’t forced to take her to a birthday party. She vanishes without a trace, though, and he spends the rest of his life haunted by his misdeed. But even before that, it seems clear that he had some neuroatypicality of his own, which manifests in a deep love for numbers and the way in which they order themselves. He’s a focused, quiet, intent young man who self harms because it’s the only way he can bring order to his world.

The characters connect largely because they are thrown together through the machinations of some mean girls who enjoy tormenting and teasing Alice, but they end up building a friendship. It’s an uneasy one in some ways, and a platonic one, complicated by secrets and layers. Mattia, for example, doesn’t tell Alice about what happened to his sister until they are both young adults. As Alice is set adrift, Mattia ends up pursuing a career in academia and moving away.

The book sometimes feels like one long missed connection; Giordano pulls the characters together and then teases them apart, making sure that they never really connect. There are numerous cusps, where something seems like it is about to happen, and one character or the other withdraws. Alice falls into a kind of unhappy and frustrating life and struggles with anorexia, withdrawing deep into  herself. Mattia lives a sort of withdrawn and quiet life of his own.

At the end, the characters are reunited, but it’s fleeting. They connect, and then let each other go. And I think that’s what I like best about the book. It sets us up to see the characters getting together and it consistently denies us that until the end, when they ultimately separate. Their brief connection isn’t necessarily bitter. It feels more like the natural conclusion of a relationship which has kind of run its course, a brief experiment which no one is really surprised to see fizzle out.

I think that the different readings of the depiction of disability in this book are really interesting. A lot of people seem to be reading what happens to Alice as a function of her disability: after her injury, she is never the same. I disagree. I think that Alice would have had depression and anorexia whether or not she had a skiing accident. Even before the accident, we already know that Alice is unhappy and that her family structure contributes to that. Her disability doesn’t make her who she is, it’s just a facet of her; it’s a facet which isolates her sometimes, but it certainly didn’t make her into who she was.

With Mattia, disability was the catalyst for an awful event that he perpetrated, and now he has to live with it. He’s the twin who abandoned his sister and who always feels alone as a result. Two solitary characters who are very much inside their own heads are kind of doomed to not connect in the end, to realise that even when they are together, they are still alone.

What I like is that this is not depicted as some kind of hopeless tragedy which we are also supposed to cluck and pity over. The story ends with Alice taking her aloneness on and transforming it, and I think it’s an empowering note to end on, although I suppose others might disagree. As a pretty solitary person myself (I’m sure that’s why Christie recommended it), I like reading books about people who are alone and who are complete in their aloneness.