Oh, Sasha – you and your soft spot for misfits

#28 of 2011 ▪ The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano.

Prime numbers are divisible only by one and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashes, 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. Sometimes he thought they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they’d been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace. Other ties he suspected that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason they couldn’t do it. This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.

In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually became rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silence, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly. There is a common conviction among mathematicians that however far you go, there will always be another two, even if no on can say where exactly, until they are discovered.

Mattia thought he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not really close enough to touch each other. He had never told her that.

1 – If this book had a central thesis, it would be pages 111-113, three paragraphs of which succinctly describe Alice and Mattia’s relationship—with themselves, with the world, and [more importantly in this novel] with each other. Prime numbers, twin primes, like 11 and 13, like 41 and 43. Both misfits, both marked by childhood tragedies. Alice is crippled during a skiing accident, and hates the world because it refuses to love her. Mattia abandons his twin sister—slinking away from a birthday party of “Oh, that’s the retard and her brother!”—and loses her forever, guilty, grieving, spookily intelligent. Both aimless, both lonely, both insisting they like it that way.

2 – Our tragedies compel us to respond to them, and we do so in different, distinct ways. I propose that at the core of all the aftermaths of all the tragedies is loneliness. That is, I propose that Giordano believes loneliness—or, there are people marked as solitary, no other way about it—and I agree with him. This novel’s full of damaged people, Alice and Mattia only leading the flock. Sometimes as partners—although this partnership might entail them simply glancing across each other—aren’t they apart for most of their adult lives? So, there, most of the time, unwittingly, by themselves.

3 – Oh, they’re aware: “They had formed 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 when the walls of their school become too close for them to ignore the feeling of suffocation.” So, yes, the loneliest among us try to slip beside each other—close, but not touching. Over and over, the philosophy drummed by Giordano’s novel. It helps that my heart was broken by the 25th page—a boy digging at a river with his bare hands, looking for his twin, well, that’ll get me every time.

4 – So very trite, no? But this is me, emotionally manipulated, and skillfully. Thank you, Mr. Giordano. I loved this book, all the while detesting the imperfections that might prevent it from being loved by more readers (readers not so keen on commiserating with misfits and losers, goodness). The prose is occasionally clumsy, saved only by the earnestness of the characters—goodness, the characters: Alice and Mattia, what is it with me and misfits?

5 – The night they first met, the brunt of mean-girl taunting and ostracism so typical in high school, Alice and Mattia compare scars. Comparing their visible scars. Again, it all seems so trite when I talk about it. And so, here is where I stop apologizing. I loved this book. Stop rationalizing, stop pretending I’m a hard-nosed, nose-thumbing, nose-wrinkling baby critic and just say, Good lord, this is a gorgeous book. Let me exhale the last of my faux-cynicism and say, Its clumsiness just might make it all the more endearing. Not unlike a limping puppy. Oops, there I go again.

5 – The novel asks: Can two prime numbers ever find a way to be together? Mathematically, no.

. . . 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 with the other.

But you, dear, brokenhearted reader, hoping against mathematical truths—you want badly for the answer to be Yes. As in, Yes, Alice and Mattia end up together. As in, Yes, an end to loneliness once they realize they can let this loneliness run its course in the company of the other who knows as much as you do. Tragedy and solitude can be defeated—or, well, two people can wrest its dominance away.

6 – Who’s to say it will all go away then?

I got my copy of The Solitude of Prime Numbers from National Bookstore.



  1. Sasha,

    I think you’ve done an excellent job of capturing what is right about this novel. It will not go down in history as a landmark of Italian literature, but it is compelling reading, particularly if you are susceptible to some emotional tugs. As I have indicted on my blog before, I can forgive much if you throw in a boy and puppy, or, in this case, two misfits. And, for the more hard core, the central thesis on pages 111-113 is worth the deficiencies in the prose/translating/editing (such as a character looking through an “opaque” window).

    Worth a read for romantics who value a bit of realism. Not perfect, but not trite either.

    1. Thank you, Kerry. I’m glad I found your post from a while back — our discussions in your post [and its digression to Alan Lightman] helped me figure out some of the issues I found in Giordano’s book.

      It’s not a perfect book, no, but like you said, someone somewhere will like it, and that’s never a bad thing.

  2. This sounds really interesting. I’m adding it to my TBR wish list now.

  3. […] The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano. […]

  4. […] [Although, yes, the treatment is king when a book deals with something as alienating as math—see The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which reminded me that there is poetry in math, and also An Abundance of Katherines, which […]

  5. I hunted this book down at National Bookstore because of your review and partly because of the quote you posted. I’m glad to say I don’t regret buying this book. I just finished it earlier, and it broke my heart. You were right. I wanted the answer to be YES, YES, END UP TOGETHER, but stubborn Giordano decided to be mathematically correct.


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