The Solitude Of Prime Numbers is a coming-of-age story covering 24 years of two mostly static characters. They go to new schools, embark on new romances, and get new jobs, but at the core, they remain unable to grow as people, paralyzed by a noxious mix of childhood tragedy and mental illness.
Paolo Giordano’s debut novel has already become an international bestseller, with more than a million copies sold in his native Italy. Giordano is a particle physicist, but his writing is as smooth and heartfelt as that of any lifelong writer. He lets his scientific background show in the character of Mattia, a mathematical prodigy who can crack the most difficult proofs and formulas, but can’t understand the people around him. During intimate moments, Mattia’s mind wanders to vectors and trajectories. When he forms something resembling friendship with Alice based on the fact that they’re both too profoundly damaged for anyone else, he comprehends their relationship as that of prime numbers, never able to actually touch because of the space of another number between them.
While Mattia’s prime pair is able to function a little better in society, the people Alice surrounds herself with to produce a semblance of a normal life seem bafflingly oblivious to the obvious and physical symptoms of her illness, or quick to ignore them. While the effects and behaviors of her condition are described in painful detail, it’s only ever named once, as if the secret is too dark to share even with readers.
The short book might be less of an agonizing read if it weren’t so easy to empathize with the characters. Instead, every blow dealt to the longsuffering protagonists is palpable. The book skips long periods as if ignoring any peace between tragedies, moving from the childish rebellions that cripple Alice to the disappearance of Mattia’s mentally handicapped sister to the fickle cruelty of high school. Solitude’s pages are filled with descriptions of the harm the characters do to their own bodies, and there’s so little relief from the constant trauma that the book just becomes painful to read. The only real solace comes from a supporting character who starts out just as isolated by a secret burden as the protagonists, but finds happiness during the course of the novel. His story provides just a glimmer of hope that maybe change is possible for everyone.