Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 10, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Current Status
In Season
Paolo Giordano
Pamela Dorman Books

We gave it an A-

The melancholy that hangs over The Solitude of Prime Numbers is seductive and ?unnerving. From the moment we meet young Alice Della Rocca and Mattia Balossino at the start of Paolo Giordano’s haunting ?novel — already a best-seller abroad — we’re engrossed by the way in which a dreadful ?combination of faulty brain wiring and rotten luck propels each child’s future, like number sequences locking into place. Truly, this girl and boy, upper-middle-class Italian schoolmates, have been dealt strikingly lousy hands of fate in Giordano’s assured debut. (To ?give any further specifics would ruin the story.)

It’s impossible to look away as the stunted lives of ?Alice and Mattia touch each other in the decades that follow. Each survives adolescence. Each manages to find satisfying work — Alice as a photographer, Mattia as a mathematician. Each forms exceedingly imperfect ?personal relationships with others. One even marries. The pair’s lives intersect at various points in the course of this quiet heartbreaker, and each recognizes a ?kindred alienation in the other.

The misleading cover of the American edition features a photograph of two peas in a pod. But in truth, Alice and Mattia are only alike insofar as how strange and singular they are. They’re twin primes, if you want to get fancy. Primes, Giordano writes, are “suspicious and solitary numbers,” divisible only by one and by themselves. Twin primes “are close to each other, almost neighbors, ?but between them there is always an even number ?that prevents them from truly touching.”

Trust Giordano on ?this one — he’s a professional physicist. Also, there are 271 pages in this singular novel. You do the math. A?

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