The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano is a quiet book about two damaged people, Alice and Mattia. How they became damaged is the baggage they carry with them that affects everything they do.
Alice lived in the Italian Alps as a child. Her father decided she was going to be a great skier and forced her, everyday, to take lessons from the time she was small. Alice does not like skiing, is not particularly good at it and doesn’t want to be. In fact she is so anxious and upset by the whole thing that she regularly wets herself while out on the slopes. One day her father sends her out to her lesson in the fog and a temperature of ten below. Alice immediately has to urinate and soon she feels her bowels wanting to let go too. But she can’t do it in front of her instructor or fellow students.
After one long chair lift up the mountain with the prospect of another lift further up, Alice can no longer bear it. She skis off a little way into the fog. Instructor and classmates have no idea where she has gone off to and assume she is already on the next lift so leave without her. In the quiet fog Alice starts to struggle to get her ski pants down but fails to do so before her bowels let go. She can’t go back to class like that so she decides to ski down the mountain and go home. The fog is so thick, however, she can’t see where she is going. She strays off course onto a closed part of the slope, goes over a precipice and finds herself at the bottom of it with a broken leg. She is unable to get up and no one is around to hear her call out and she fully expects she will freeze to death.
Mattia and Michela are twins. But where Mattia borders on genius, Michela is severely developmentally disabled. Michela is put in the same class at school as Mattia. Mattia is forced by both his parents and his teachers to always look out for Michela because none of them know what to do with her. Mattia never gets to do anything alone and never has the chance to make friends because of Michela. And then a classmate invites Michela and Mattia to his birthday party.
Mattia’s mother is overjoyed, relieved that maybe Mattia really does have friends against all evidence to the contrary. Mattia does not want to go to the party but his mother insists. Mattia dares to ask if he can go without Michela and his mother is horrified. Micheal must go too.
The afternoon of the party Mattia and Michela set off to walk the few blocks to the classmate’s house. When they pass by the park by the river, Mattia gets an idea. He takes Michela to the table where the family has gone for picnics before and tells her to stay there and not move. He’s not even sure that she understands, but he convinces himself that she does and he will only be gone for half an hour and everything will be ok. Mattia is gone for several hours, forgetting his sister in his first chance to have fun. When he remembers her it is full dark. He rushes out of the party and to the park. Michela is not there. He searches for her to no avail.
He ends up standing at the riverbank, knowing she has fallen in. In his despair, he sits down on the bank where his hand finds a piece of broken glass. He then proceeds to stab his hands with the shard.
Alice and Mattia meet in high school. Both are outcasts. Alice is considered lame, the leg she broke in the accident doesn’t work right and she has a funny, swinging gate. She has also become anorexic. Mattia studies all the time and is very good at math. He is painfully shy and takes out his anger and aggression on himself by cutting. The two are quite the pair and form a friendship in which neither questions the other and so they feel safe because they do not need to make up lies or evasive answers.
Alice and Mattia are like the prime numbers that so fascinate Mattia:
Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They stand in their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed in between two others, like all other numbers, but a step further on than the rest. They are suspicious and solitary, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they’d been trapped like pearls strung on a necklace. At other times he suspected that they too would rather have been like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason they weren’t capable of it.
It is his work with prime numbers at university that leads to a job offer from an English University. He leaves Alice in Italy where she becomes a photographer, taking pictures at weddings and other events. But neither Mattia and Alice can forget about the other or rescue themselves from their respective mental illnesses.
The end of the book could have been tragic or it could have been a forced happily ever after. It is neither. The end is fitting and offers a twinkle of possible redemption. I was relieved to finish the book, not because it was bad, it is a very good book, but because Mattia and Alice are two difficult characters the reader can neither love nor hate. And just as they keep others from them, they don’t let the reader get close to them either. They made me tired but I couldn’t give up on them.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a bestseller in Italy, I hope it does well in English translation. The book is Giordano’s first. I hope he doesn’t become too busy in his work as a physicist to write more. It will definitely be interesting to see how he develops as a writer.