The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo GiordanoI was handed a copy of Paolo Giordano’s award-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers by a friend with whom I tend to share literary tastes (and consequently, books). She had already raved about it in an unusually vague blog entry, and I was suitably intrigued. Even the book jacket gave away more than she was willing to disclose. “If I say any more, I’d be doing a disservice to the book,” she said. “Go and read it. Like, right now.”

Then she loaned it to her co-worker. So I waited. Patiently, of course.

A week later, she presented me with her copy. I started reading it the next day, while sitting on a patio in the middle of an intense Toronto heat wave. I had taken refuge to rehydrate and cool down during a fairly ill-advised walk across town during the middle of the day. A quick pint and a glass of water turned into two pints and, even as I was ready to move on, I had a hard time putting down the book. I devoured the first half in about an hour.

I understand my friend’s trepidation about speaking too much about the content of the book in her recommendation. It’s one of those sublime, quiet stories that is light on plot while remaining completely absorbing and enthralling. In brief summary, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is about two people, Alice and Mattia, who bear the scars of individual childhood tragedies. They meet as teenagers and seem to instinctively recognize this lonely, damaged quality in each other. Their resulting relationship also defies definition.

The book has a beautiful flow and cadence, perfectly peppered with artfully recurring motifs such as scars, twins, and mathematical concepts. But of greatest in import and impact is the concept of absences, and of space. After essentially depicting the climactic moment of each character’s life in the opening chapters of the book, the narrative proceeds to primarily occupy the empty spaces between the characters major life events; conversely, most of the lives of the characters occur in implied spaces between each section of the narrative.

Similarly, the physical and metaphorical space between Alice and Mattia, whether their standing side-by-side or separated by thousands of miles, seems to embody the core question of the story. Does this space connect them, or is it this space that keeps them ultimately separated?

When they first meet, they transform the space around them, and the answer would appear to be that they are almost immediately, inexorably connected. Almost unconsciously holding hands, the pair elicit a visceral emotional reaction from everyone else in the room with their seemingly perfect, effortless link:

The marked contrast between Alice’s light-coloured hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which air seemed motionless, undisturbed.

But their immediate bond is only half of the equation. Balancing out the pull that draws them together, Alice and Mattia are also subject to an opposite force that seems to keep them from fully connecting. In his study of mathematics, Mattia uncovers a concept which seems to mimic this tension:

… among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. 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, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43.

This quiet push-and-pull drives this equally subtle story to its inevitable conclusion; very much the conclusion of an emotional journey rather than a neatly-wrapped plot. Neither entirely satisfying nor in any way a disappointment, the end of The Solitude of Prime Numbers left me with a lingering sense of the absence of these now-familiar characters, a fading echo of the absences that so haunted and defined the book.

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