I stumbled across Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers in the bookstore a while back but was admittedly intimidated by its title. My degree is in English Literature and by virtue of such studies I haven’t performed a mathematical calculation in quite a while. However, once I was able to establish the metaphor of prime numbers (natural numbers divisible by only one and themselves) as symbols for the lonely, socially disconnected characters of the novel, I was able to enjoy this very unique book.
The prime numbers of this novel are Mattia and Alice, individuals scarred early by personal tragedy who, later in life, find it difficult to connect with the world around them. For Mattia, the tragedy involves his mentally disabled twin sister Michela. When the two were young, Mattia abandoned Michela in a park so that he could, for once, enjoy the company of his classmates without being hampered by the presence of his twin. Unfortunately, this misstep yields disastrous consequences. Ridden with guilt, Mattia cuts and burns his skin to cope, closing him off from potentially loving friends and family.
Like Mattia, Alice’s childhood is marred with unfortunate circumstances. As a result of her father’s vicarious ambition Alice is forced to take unwanted ski lessons from a young age, ultimately leading to an accident that leaves both a leg and her confidence irreparably damaged. Instead of cutting, like Mattia, Alice seeks solace in an eating disorder that debilitates her life through adulthood.
However, instead of connecting with one another as a result of their shared loneliness, Mattia and Alice seem only to exacerbate each other’s solitude. Fortunately, though, Mattia and Alice’s relationship proves ultimately to possess a healing component. In the end, it is only by reconnecting with each other as adults, after years of silence, that they each begin to see the folly of their extraordinarily disconnected existences.
What I loved about The Solitude of Prime Numbers was its ability to force me to examine my own alienating propensities by way of its haunting cast of characters. Reading about Mattia and Alice was downright painful at times, but the reason for this was not empathy, rather, it was the frightening connection I could make between the characters and myself. One does not need to have a history of cutting or anorexia to understand these characters, just a fleeting sense of isolation from time to time.
At just twenty-six at the time of his debut novel’s publication Paolo Giordano is certainly a writer to watch. I look forward to more interesting characters and stories from this international talent.