4.5 out of 5: Physicist Paolo Giordano’s debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, won Italy’s premier literary award, the Premio Strega, in 2008. Now available in the U.S. in an English translation, The Solitude of Prime Numbers explores the poignant relationship that develops between two misfits, Alice and Mattia. Alice, an anorexic with a limp left over from a childhood skiing accident, resists forming trusting relationships, and Mattia, carrying a lifetime of guilt over the early loss of his twin sister, is forever surrounded by a “contagious air of tragedy.” Beginning with their teenaged years, Alice’s and Mattia’s lives progress in mostly parallel narratives with only occasional, and often awkward, intersections. Over time, Alice and Mattia build “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 ….” Like for prime numbers, which are always sandwiched between ordinary numbers, “solitude is the true destiny” for Alice and Mattia.
Giordano’s elegant and understated prose perfectly matches the elegiac tone of Alice’s and Mattia’s story. Shot through with poetic passages that resist shading into extravagance, Giordano’s sentences are a joy to read even if the novel’s episodic presentation, along with the accompanying substantial gaps in time, is sometimes unsatisfying. The novel’s graceful conclusion resists smoothing over the wonderful and confusing complexity of human relationships. Overall, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a haunting and rewarding read.