The Solitude of Prime Numbers
by Paolo Giordano
translated by Shaun Whiteside
It’s a terrible thing to say, but I was determined not
to like The Solitude of Prime Numbers, the award-winning book by Italian
author Paolo Giordano. I’d heard several so-so reports from friends, I found
the Italian cover a little disturbing (a face shrouded in leaves) and, to be
honest, the title just seemed too good to be true. How could a book ever live
up to such a wonderfully intriguing title?
Well, I read it in two days. I read it at work, I read
it while I was cooking and I even read it on the bus, despite getting terrible
motion sickness between Piazza Leopoldo and via delle Panche.
The story follows the intertwining lives of Alice and
Mattia. Both characters’ stories are shadowed by two very different childhood
life is shattered by a near-fatal skiing accident and Mattia struggles with a
guilty secret concerning the disappearance of his twin sister. These painful
burdens follow them throughout their teens and into their adult lives.
This novel about family,
relationships and dealing with the ‘weight of consequences,’ as Alice puts it, probably sounds rather dismal. In fact, without giving away
the ending, this is not a happily-ever-after story. Nonetheless, there is
something very compelling and real about the two main characters. Also,
Giordano’s measured and delicate style conveys a depth of emotion in very few
words. His light touch makes the story even more moving. Praise also goes to
the English translator, Shaun Whiteside: not once does the text pull the reader
back down to earth by sounding like a clunky translation.
So who is Paolo Giordano? Not only did he win Italy’s
Premio Strega at the humble age of 26 (he’s the youngest person to ever win),
but he’s not foremost a writer. By trade he’s a physicist, currently working on
a doctorate on particle physics. In fact, there’s quite a mathematical theme
throughout the book, hence the ‘prime numbers.’
Think he sounds a little square?
He comes across in interviews as an inteligent, witty, modest and all-round
nice guy. If that weren’t enough, he’s also handsome. Moreover, in The
Solitude of Prime Numbers, Giordano convincingly conveys feelings, among
them teen angst. Perhaps it’s this authenticity that has made the novel such a
success. Who doesn’t remember the terrifying reign of the cool kids at school?
Who doesn’t remember attending that first teen party and not knowing what to
say when everyone else seemed so at ease?
For the umpteenth time I have learnt the ridiculously
obvious lesson of not judging a book by its (Italian) cover. The sadness
portrayed in the book has a strikingly eloquent beauty. Not bad for a first
novel from a particle physicist who writes as a hobby.