April 2010

One isn’t always the loneliest number

By Paolo Giordano
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A prime number is a number divisible only by one and by itself. As numbers grow larger, the frequency of primes decreases, and these mathematical islands become more and more distant from each other. “Among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special,” writes Paolo Giordano in The Solitude of Prime Numbers. “Mathematicians call them twin primes: pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching. Numbers like 11 and 13.” Alice and Mattia, the novel’s two main characters, are the human analogues to twin primes; they fit with no one but each other, and even that connection is tenuous. It’s a high literary concept, but Giordano’s clear understanding of all things mathematical—by day he works as a particle physicist—provides a clarity that can be appreciated by anyone, including those with math phobias.

In concise chapters over a 24-year time span, we learn that Alice is an anorexic with a permanently disabled leg and Mattia is a mathematical savant who is forever scarred, emotionally and physically, by the loss of his twin sister at a young age. The story vacillates between the two narratives, allowing the reader a glimpse into the void that surrounds the pair, yet also binds them together. Linked by a common tapestry of childhood tragedy and social isolation,  Alice and Mattia remain disparate, always separated by a gap that neither of them can ever seem to bridge.

Giordano deftly creates a sense of loneliness and loss through the use of simple, beautiful language and powerful imagery. The brevity of this novel does not diminish its power, while the maturity of the prose and the courage of the storytelling belie the fact that this is Giordano’s first novel. Translated from the Italian, The Solitude of Prime Numbers won the Premio Strega, Italy’s prestigious literary award, and is well-positioned to win more acclaim on the international stage.

Tony Kuehn writes from Nashville.

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