The weight of consequences

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 2008. 343 pages

« Deux désespoirs qui se rencontrent, cela peut bien faire un espoir, mais cela prouve seulement que l’espoir est capable de tout… » Romain Gary, Clair de femme. (1)

1983: Alice is skiing against her will, her father wants her to be a ski champion. She’s cold, sick and has a poo on herself with her clothes on. Ashamed and afraid of her father, she leaves the group, gets lost in the fog and has a serious ski accident.

1984: Mattia’s twin sister Michela is mentally retarded. He always needs to take care of her. For once, they’re invited to a birthday party. Mattia wants to go without Michela, to have a free mind. His parents refuse. He abandons Michela in a nearby park. She will never be found again.

After these tragic events, Alice and Mattia have to live with the weight of consequences. She’s lame and anorexic. He feels guilty and expresses it by cutting his hands with whatever he finds. Both have difficulties to trust other people. Mattia has a wide private space around him, he’s almost unreachable. He finds solace in mathematics and especially in algebra. It’s clean, logical and involves no emotion. They meet in high school and start an on-and-off friendship. We follow them at different moments of their lives but I won’t tell what happens to them, to avoid spoilers.

At once I was angry at those parents who don’t take their children’s wishes into account. Alice’s father doesn’t listen and imposes his will. She’s too scared to say she doesn’t like skiing or that she can’t swallow more milk. Her mother is inexistent. Mattia’s parents rely on him to watch Michela in school and ask him to take care of her. As they are twins, they’re in the same class and Mattia is always with her. His parents ask too much, make him take on the responsibilities of adults and don’t let him have the childhood he deserves. Either dictatorial or dismissive, these parents don’t play their roles as confidents, shields and gardeners of young beings. They let their children become dysfunctional adults. Alice’s parents are well aware that she doesn’t eat enough. They don’t react. Mattia’s parents don’t know what to do with that brilliant child who hurts himself.

I thought that Paolo Giordano drew a compassionate portrait of these two broken souls. They fight against a past that eats them alive. Their relationship is strong but complicated.

Giordano’s style is pleasant, sometimes inventive. He managed to avoid corny romance, useless pathos and implausible optimism. Something I can’t nail lacked in this book, I wasn’t really fond of Alice and/or Mattia. I missed the kind of bond you can create with such characters. That’s me, not the book. It’s a good read, it won the Primo Strega, a prestigious literary prize in Italy. I found a good review at the Guardian here.

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(1) Two despairs who meet can make a hope, but it only proves that hope is capable of anything…

  1. August 30, 2011 at 7:40 am

    The first thing that struck me was that you wrote a short review which you don’t when you like a book. Then there is a Gary quote (another excellent one by the way) but no quote from the book. Little Sherlock already knew that isn’t going to land on your Top 10 of 2011 in December. I’ve seen this book many times in bookshops and was never really tempted. I had no clue what it’s about but reading your review I’m somewhere inbetween wanting to find out for myself and not interested…

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    • August 30, 2011 at 8:50 am

      Your comment made me laugh. Well done Little Sherlock! Someone lent this book to me, I didn’t choose it. Not sure I would have bought it.
      When I published the review, I was surprised by the word count: very low. There are several reasons to all the details you mentioned:
      – I don’t have quotes from the book, which is rare. For example, I have 40 pages of quotes from Sodome et Gomorrhe.
      – If I want to describe the characters in a more precise way, I have to give away spoilers and I don’t want to.

      So it’s a short review. I wasn’t bored by that book at all, I wondered how it would end. But something lacked and I didn’t move from like to love.
      I can’t tell if you’d like it.

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  2. August 30, 2011 at 9:14 am

    It would be a curiosity kills the case if I read it and don’t like it and you could tell me “I told you so” but I guess it will neither be as bad as La fille aux yeux d’or nor Les choses

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    • August 30, 2011 at 9:30 am

      The cat won’t be killed. It’s a pleasant book. I don’t think you’ll get bored. I’d be interested in reading your review.
      I think my personal English expression is “There’s no accounting for taste”. Isn’t that a great one for me?

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  3. August 30, 2011 at 9:15 am

    oops the cat is missing

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  4. August 30, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Well, I liked this short review and it tempts me to move my copy of the book up the TBR. Thanks, Emma:)

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    • August 30, 2011 at 10:53 am

      I’ll read your review when you publish it.

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  5. August 30, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    I’ve seen other reviews of this book and think it sounds a courageous and sensitive one. I know I couldn’t read it as I would feel far too furious with the parents to be able to engage with everything it was telling me. I know how some things are just triggers for me! But for anyone who’s interested in the stories of difficult, damaged children, it sounds like a powerful read.

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    • August 30, 2011 at 4:52 pm

      Damaged, that’s the word. It could have been avoided with proper – not exceptional, just regular – parenting.

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  6. August 30, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    I see the subject of anorexia on the cover. This sounds as though it would make a good film, but perhaps not so hot a book.

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    • August 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm

      I see on http://www.telerama.fr that both book and film have good reviews. It’s a reference for me. I don’t know why I didn’t like this book more. It can be a very good film indeed if it’s filmed with intelligence.

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  7. August 30, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Despite her anorexia and her bad leg, Alice is in better shape than Mattia. At least she can blame someone else. He can’t.

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  8. September 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I had never heard of The Solitude of Prime Numbers before reading this review and even if I had, the name would probably have put me off but I’m now quite intrigued. It may be that I have to get round to joining a library as I just can’t afford all of the books I’m noticing on blogs.

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    • September 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm

      Hello Louis, thanks for visiting.
      I’m glad you discovered a book you might enjoy.
      I hope you don’t live in Great Britain, I heard on the radio they’re closing 25% of libraries to cut public expenses.
      Sometimes you can find very cheap used copies of books online.

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  9. September 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Kerry reviewed this at Hungry Like the Woolf (http://hungrylikethewoolf.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/the-solitude-of-prime-numbers-by-paolo-giordano/). It sounded well done, but not me, your review tempts me more actually but I’ll wait to see what else Giordano does I think.

    Louise, I rather liked the title. It sounds somehow so remote and melancholy, which it seems the book is. Nicely matched.

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    • September 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks for the link to Kerry’s blog. It’s not the first time you mention her, I’ll have a closer look at what she reviews.

      I also liked the title and it’s well chosen. Mattia has a fascination for prime numbers. It’s explained in the book.

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