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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Paolo Giordano

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To purchase The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Title: The Solitude of Prime Numbers
Author: Paolo Giordano
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 271 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Solitude of Prime Numbers - US
The Solitude of Prime Numbers - UK
The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Canada
The Solitude of Prime Numbers - India
La solitude des nombres premiers - France
Die Einsamkeit der Primzahlen - Deutschland
La solitudine dei numeri primi - Italia
  • Italian title: La solitudine dei numeri primi
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B : well-written, but only seems to get close to its subject

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A- 10/3/2010 Lisa Schwarzbaum
Financial Times . 8/6/2009 Adrian Turpin
FAZ . 19/2/2010 Winfried Wehle
The Guardian A 27/6/2009 Tobias Jones
The Independent . 17/7/2009 Emilia Ippolito
NZZ B- Barbara Villiger Heilig
The NY Times A 12/3/2010 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/4/2010 Liesl Schillinger
The Washington Post . 23/4/2010 Carolyn See

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's impossible to look away as the stunted lives of Alice and Mattia touch each other in the decades that follow." - Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Though Giordano is a pacy writer, there is something borderline distasteful, about the way he romanticises the pain of his star-crossed integers. Real life is messier." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "Das ist das eigentlich Erstaunliche dieses Romans der gescheiterten Wahlverwandtschaften. Er offeriert seine Geschichte weithin im Modus der Enthaltsamkeit und findet doch üppigen Zuspruch -- durchaus ein Kompliment an die Leserschaft. Deutet sich darin eine neue Sensibilität an, die am Ufer selbstbeherrschter Schriftlichkeit Erholung von medialen Überschwemmungen in Wort, Bild und Ton sucht?" - Winfried Wehle, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(I)t's a very accomplished book and deserves all its success. (...) Part of the success of the book comes from its minimalism. Scenes, dialogue and descriptions are -- in sharp contrast to the florid nature of much Italian fiction -- brief, almost terse. (...) It all makes for a melancholic, but strangely beautiful, read. Shaun Whiteside's translation is exemplary." - Tobias Jones, The Guardian

  • "Not a bad result for a first attempt at fiction by a promising hope for the future of Italian literature." - Emilia Ippolito, The Independent

  • "Doch mehr als einen Unterhaltungsroman macht er trotzdem nicht aus seinem Stoff, dessen psychopathologische Komponente auf die Dauer nervt. Psychisch angeschlagene Menschen sind nicht per se literarisch. Sie verbergen ihre banalen Seiten bloss besser als andere." - Barbara Villiger Heilig, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The Solitude of Prime Numbers is neither psychological drama nor plight-driven melodrama. If anything, it is a venture into an undiscovered realm of astonishing shapes and colors. (...) What is even more distinctive, and transforming, is the writing. The author works with piercing subtlety. He manages -- to move from math to physics -- an exquisite rendering of what one might call feelings at the subatomic level, emotionís muons, gluons and quarks." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "The fascination of Giordano's writing lies in his deft delineation of the personalities congealed in these frozen figures. Mattia and Alice emerge like ice sculptures against a human backdrop that the author animates, but which the characters themselves don't treat as real. (...) The story -- the explanation, really -- of how two people come to find solitude more comforting than companionship is the subtle work of Giordanoís haunting novel, a finely tuned machine powered by the perverse mechanics of need." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "There's no arguing with this depressive emotional position, besides growing up. We all have to die, and that means in the end that the depressives are right. I'm just wondering about the thousands upon thousands of Europeans who (presumably) subscribe to this position, and have turned, by their adulation, this whimpering cub into a literary lion." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Solitude of Prime Numbers is told in almost snapshot-style, the first chapter set in 1983, the next in 1984, the next in 1991, advancing -- at times more slowly -- up to 2007. The first two chapters tell of the childhood personal catastrophes that befall the two central characters, Alice and Mattia, but, in an approach typical for much of the book, avoid showing the catastrophe -- meaning its consequences -- in full. In fact, in telling these two life-stories over the course of the book, Giordano shows how far-reaching these catastrophes are.
       Alice's accident leaves her scarred and slightly lame; Mattia's is only psychologically damaging; the impact of each of the events, however, also manifests itself in other ways: Alice winds up with an eating disorder, while Mattia takes to cutting himself. They wind up going to the same school, and they become friends of sort.
       Mattia is a mathematical prodigy but otherwise almost autistic; even his mother finds it's unnatural:

     "Do you know what really makes me shiver ?" said Adele. "All those high grades he gets. Always the highest. There's something frightening in those grades."
       Studying is: "the only thing I know how to do" Mattia tells Alice; what he can't bring himself to tell her is:
that he liked studying because you can do it alone, because all the things you study are already dead, cold, and chewed over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, that they left time to choose, that they never hurt you and you couldn't hurt them either.
       While Mattia is always withdrawn, Alice tries to be more outgoing but can't connect with the popular girls. In Mattia she finds a kindred sort of spirit: they recognize themselves in each other's damaged souls. They remain connected in adulthood too, even after Mattia goes abroad, and Alice marries, as Giordano presents the lives of two damaged people whose lives are loosely intertwined but not twinned -- at best twin primes, separated by a single even number; Mattia even imagines the two that represent them (2760889966649 and 2760889966651).
       Giordano offers a few defining episodes, but most is left unsaid, at best filled in some time later. So, for example, almost the entire high school years are summed up in a single paragraph:
     For Alice and Mattia, the high school years were an open wound that had seemed so deep that it could never heal. They had passed through them without breathing, he rejecting the world and she being rejected by it, and eventually they had noticed that it didn't make all that much difference. They had formed a defective and asymmetrical friendship, made up of long absences and much silence, a clean and empty space where both could come back to breathe when the walls of their school became too close for them to ignore the feeling of suffocation.
       At yet another pivotal point (those are the ones Giordano concentrates on) Mattia finds:
     By now he had learned. Choices are made in brief seconds and paid for in the time that remains. It had happened with Michela and then with Alice and again now. He recognized them this time: those seconds were there, and he would never make a mistake again.
       At least Giordano doesn't insists on the sappy conclusion -- yet his choices are also far from satisfying. Throughout he means to show the small choices and events that have enormous and lasting effect, as if that were true to life; but his vision is also a reductive one, and simply because it is a sad one doesn't make it any more convincing.
       The writing in The Solitude of Prime Numbers is quite good, the episodes vivid and plausible enough, for the most part, but these characters don't feel fully fleshed-out, their identities too defined by their damage. Like pictures in an album, the episodes only seem to reveal part of the story. Giordano may mean there to be much for the reader to infer, but he doesn't really allow that freedom: he does not come right out and describe the initial catastrophes immediately, for example, but leaves essentially no question as to exactly what happened and what the (immediate) consequences were, and it's like that for almost all the book.
       There's considerable talent at work here, and The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a reasonably compelling read, but it's ultimately not truly satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 February 2010

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The Solitude of Prime Numbers: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author and physicist Paolo Giordano was born in 1982.

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