The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

★★★★★ (5/5)

Wonderfully tragic, inexplicably withdrawn and beautifully composed, Paolo Giordano’s debut novel “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is a marvel of story-telling and pathos without romanticising the notions of melancholy and solitude. It is a coming-of-age-story, revolving around Alice and Mattia – two people drawn together through scarred adolescence and solitary adulthood. The translation by Shaun Whiteside is commendable. It conveys the terrible gravity of characters and their situations with stunning brevity. Sentences are fluid, intense and visceral, exuding tragic beauty of two lives who are threaded together by fate yet remain woefully distant.

Alice suffers from a limp in a skiing accident she had as a child. Mattia abandoned his mentally disabled twin sister in a park after which she went missing. Both these tragic incidents puncture their teenage years with painful sense of isolation and awkwardness. They are aware of their terrible past at all times which leads to self-harm, anorexia and undue self-consciousness but it is the same past that weaves the lives of Alice and Mattia together. Giordano traces their next twenty-four years in which both protagonists go on to lead their own separate lives hinging on to each other. They are socially dislocated and find comfort in their mutual friendship which eventually blossoms into unprofessed love.

Alice and Mattia are two frayed pieces of a puzzle, perfectly befitting each other but never forming the complete whole. Mattia takes solace in mathematics and science, a formulaic existence through which he evaluates life’s events with mathematical precision. This tendency alienates him from many social circles and affect his love life in profound ways. Alice’s career as a photographer is an attempt to escape the disarray of her haunting past but her repulsion to food spirals her life out of control.

“The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is a profoundly beautiful read. It analyses weaknesses and passions through the lens of realism of two characters who are deeply entrenched in a past they long to escape but are inextricably linked to forever. The writing is fantastically gripping as the author time and time again plays with the readers mind – a possibility emerges of unification, only to be dispelled by fate and choice again. A myriad of minor characters, portrayed ever so wonderfully but dealt with similar brevity, add much color to the tragedy of the two main characters. This is a highly recommended read!

Here’s a bulk of beautifully crafted sentences:

  • The sound of the wind sweeping the summit of the mountain was punctuated by the metallic rush of the steel cable from which Alice and Giuliana were hanging
  • Her thoughts were growing more and more circular and illogical
  • Her inarticulate little cries rose from such a solitary, deserted place that they made their father shiver every time
  • His brain seemed to be a perfect machine, in the same mysterious way that his sister’s was so defective
  • Those merciless, captivating looks that could make or break you with a single, imperceptible flicker of the eyebrow
  • while Alice’s lips still bore the insipid memory of a mechanical kiss in third year.
  • Pietro Balossino had stopped trying to penetrate his son’s obscure universe long ago
  • Viola Bai was admired and feared with equal passion by her classmates, because she was so beautiful she made people uneasy
  • Viola Bai knew how to tell a story. She knew that all the violence is contained in the precision of a detail
  • She pressed her bony back against the wall. A tremor ran down her good leg. The other remained inert, as always.
  • The fluorescent light on the ceiling gave off an electrical hum and the voices of the kids in the gym were a formless mixture of shouts and laughter
  • But the guilt rained down on him from above like a shower of dirty water. It ran down his skin and nestled in his guts, making everything slowly rot, the way that damp eats away at the walls of an old house.
  • was a bright day, an anticipation of spring at the beginning of March
  • He told her about the post office where he used to work, and how long the evenings were now, at home alone, with so many years behind him and so many ghosts to reckon with
  • Ernesto apologized, but then he bent over her lips again and Soledad felt all the dust that had settled in her heart whirl up and get in her eyes.
  • His mother often abandoned her sentences halfway through, as if she had forgotten what she was going to say as she was saying it. Those interruptions left bubbles of emptiness in her eyes and in the air and Mattia always imagined bursting them with a finger.
  • She hated the fact that her every action always had to seem so irremediable, so definitive. In her mind she called it the weight of consequences, and she was sure that it was another awkward piece of her father that had wormed its way into her brain
  • How she longed for the uninhibitedness of kids her age
  • He would happily have spent all night in that car, driving around the half-dark streets of the hill, watching the lights of the cars in the opposite lane strike his friend’s face and then return it to the shadows, unharmed
  • He noticed that they had the same way of holding objects, framing them with their fingers tensed, touching surfaces but not really resting on them, as if they feared deforming whatever they held in their hands
  • The music in the living room sounded like the heavy, panting breath of the walls
  • The silence was almost unbearable for both of them, the empty space between their faces overflowing with expectation and embarrassment
  • The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers
  • They had a dreamy air about them, as if they had come from some distant place that only they knew
  • was filled with a searing nostalgia for a part of the world that had drowned in the river along with Michela.
  • He wondered if his classmates knew everything. Maybe even his teachers knew. He felt their furtive glances weaving together above his head like a fishing net
  • Mattia came down the stairs enveloped by that foot and a half of emptiness that no one other than Denis dared occupy
  • The Polaroid spat out a thin white tongue and Alice waved it in the air to bring out the color.
  • Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful
  • He was dressed anonymously and had the posture of someone who doesn’t know how to occupy the space of his own body. The professor thought he was
  • and she had thanked him with a beautiful smile, as impossible to grasp as a gust of icy wind.
  • Then, in a precise instant, like the line separating light and shade, Fernanda’s illness had gotten worse
  • A feeling of remorse, the origins of which belonged to another time, kept him from imposing his will on his daughter and almost kept him from talking to her at all
  • Alice had a sense that he was aware of the way the light played on his hair; that in some way he was aware of everything he was, and all the things around him.
  • He concentrated on his own breathing, which was still stuck in some backwash between his throat and the bottom of his lungs. It had happened to him before, but never for such a long time.
  • All Mattia saw was a shadow moving toward him. He instinctively closed his eyes and then felt Alice’s hot mouth on his, her tears on his cheek, or maybe they weren’t hers, and finally her hands, so light, holding his head still and catching all his thoughts and imprisoning them there, in the space that no longer existed between them.
  • The excesses of the world, whatever form they might assume, didn’t really concern him
  • He knew how to build a shelter for himself even before he needed one
  • In that unknown and far-off place lay his future as a mathematician. There was a promise of salvation, an uncontaminated place where nothing was yet compromised. Here, on the other hand, there was Alice, just Alice, and all around her a swamp.
  • He had learned to respect the chasm that Mattia had dug around himself. Years previously he had tried to jump over that chasm, and had fallen into it. Now he contented himself with sitting on the edge, his legs dangling into the void
  • Mattia’s voice no longer stirred anything in his stomach, but he was aware of the idea of him and always would be, as the only true benchmark for everything that had come afterward.
  • That evening, getting up from the table, she had crossed the invisible boundary beyond which things start working by themselves
  • The thought of Mattia, so incessant over the past few weeks, vibrated faintly in the air like a slightly slackened violin string, a dissonant note lost in the middle of an orchestra.
  • Alice laughed and the sound of it scattered through the air as she left with that sinuous, rhythmic gait of hers.
  • Alice smiled at the thought that it might be their first half-truth as a married couple, the first of the tiny cracks that would eventually converge into a gaping hole.
  • He wondered whether his parents had grown old. Of course they had, he heard it in his father’s voice, which was slower and wearier, more like an attack of breathlessness
  • Alice had set it aside, like something she would think about later on. Now, all of a sudden, there it was, like an abyss cut into the black ceiling of the room, monstrous and irrepressible
  • All of a sudden things seemed to return to their place in the shadows. There was silence again, but it was an imprecise silence
  • Nadia thought about the ridiculous space of solitude that separated them and tried to find the courage to occupy it with her body
  • She sat up and they both thought how much trouble it would be to find themselves like this again, to break an old equilibrium and build a different one
  • The scene was set. All that was required was an action, a cold start, instant and brutal as beginnings always are
  • The weight of consequences was always there, like a stranger sleeping on top of her.
  • You can fall ill with just a memory
  • He felt a furious sense of powerlessness, because he played no part in Alice’s life, but by God she did in his, like a daughter whose name he hadn’t been able to choose.
  • felt as if she didn’t have a past, as if she had found herself in that place without knowing where she had come from
  • She was filled with searing but pleasurable nostalgia
  • If he had moved, she would have been aware of it somehow. Because she and Mattia were united by an invisible, elastic thread, buried under a pile of meaningless things, a thread that could exist only between two people like themselves: two people who had acknowledged their own solitude within the other
  • Both of them were aware, however, of his strange and menacing presence, just beyond the edge of the page
  • “It was just an excuse to keep you with me,” Alice replied. “But you never understood anything.” They both laughed, to stifle the ghosts let loose by her words
  • Alice assembled and dismantled the image of the moment when she and Mattia would meet; she studied the scene from different angles and adjusted every detail. She wore away at the thought until it seemed not so much a projection as a memory.
  • They were details he knew well, which had survived in his mind longer than words and situations.
  • His physical presence was overwhelming; he no longer seemed to have any cracks through which one could invade his space, as she had often liked to do when she was a girl. Or else it was that she no longer felt she had the right to. That she was no longer capable of it.
  • Before her was a man whom she had once known and who was now someone else
  • The kiss lasted a long time, whole minutes, long enough for reality to find a fissure between their clamped mouths and slip inside, forcing them both to analyze what was happening.
  • By now he had learned. Choices are made in brief seconds and paid for in the time that remains
  • That same morning, a few hours later, Alice raised the blinds. The dry rattle of the plastic slats rolling around the pulley was comforting

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