Book review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Sometime during the course of the summer, my best friend and fellow literary masochist, AR, suggested that I read Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Set in Italy, the novel follows the lives of two people — Alice and Mattia — whom are both, in their painfully human ways, prime numbers. A prime number is one that is only divisible by itself and the number 1; it’s revealed during one of Mattia’s numerous narrations in the novel that some prime numbers come in “pairs” — such as 1 and 3, which are separated by an even number but in an odd way, keep each other company.

Alice and Mattia are a pair of prime numbers. As their lives intersect and separate, over and over, it becomes increasingly apparent that no matter how much love exists between two people who recognize the same solitude within each other that they experience on their own every day, that love isn’t necessarily strong enough to keep them together. If anything, it repels them away from each other. The idea of being attached to the thing that makes you weakest, the thing that hurts you most, comes up often throughout the book. It’s also condensed into a single quote:

“…she had grown attached to it with the obstinacy with which people become attached only to things that hurt them.” (205)

Although this quote describes neither Alice nor Mattia, it’s still completely relevant to the rest of the novel. It also hurts — hits right in the chest, the sternum, the heart, deflates the lungs and makes it hard to breathe. I feel as though I have a literary hangover from reading this novel and it’s largely because of the language Giordano uses to tell the story. Each word is written with care, cradled between the surrounding words and designed to create the greatest emotional impact in the most poetic way. One can tell just from reading a single page of The Solitude of Prime Numbers that Giordano’s language is impressive, carefully selected in order to tell this story in such a way that it can’t be escaped or ignored. The blurb from The New York Times on the front cover of the novel reads:

“Mesmerizing … An exquisite rendering of what one might call feelings at the subatomic level.”

That’s pretty accurate. I was sucked into this novel from the start and I didn’t want to put it down because I had to know where it was going, what was going to happen, how the characters were going to develop. Simultaneously, I couldn’t stand to read any further because my heart ached so badly. I live for writing that makes me clutch my chest and breathe deeply just to avoid the pain and The Solitude of Prime Numbers is that type of writing, from beginning to end.

I am in absolute awe of this novel. Giordano’s prose is stunning and painful and sharp, striking right at the core and letting the hurt radiate outward. The idea of people as prime numbers is fascinating and hurtful but also so, so true. How many people would intersect if not for their own solitude? I’m left here thinking about human relationships and the nature of love and how sometimes, soulmates never find each other — or they do, but they can’t figure it out. There’s something in the way, someone. Who knows? This novel deals with issues including eating disorders, self harm, violence within interpersonal relationships and more, but does so in such a way that the issues are relevant and important to the development of the characters, rather than using them as add-ins for shock value.

I am incredibly impressed and I look forward to reading more of Giordano’s work in the future, because this book has left me speechless in a way I never expected. I knew nothing about the book going into it other than what Amanda had told me when she recommended it, which was, essentially, that it hurts. She was right. It does hurt, but in a way that feels hopeful and defeatist all at once.

Overall rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: literary masochists and people who like poetic prose

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Book review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

3 thoughts on “Book review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

  1. This novel sounds like it’s constructed really interestingly. I am always looking at the cover in used bookstores (it seems to be everywhere). I think I’ll get it now. I also love when a character is named Alice.

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