Tragedy early in life scars Alice and Mattia forever. Their families never address the issues, preferring to sidestep and ignore, and eventually it seems as if everyone has forgotten the reasons behind those tragedies and simply plays the roles they have created for themselves. Alice, crippled in a skiing accident, becomes anorexic, and Mattia, who may or may not be slightly autistic to start with, loses his twin sister and becomes a cutter. In high school these two social outcasts are literally thrust together by the lead mean girl. Both are loners, prime numbers in Mattia's mathematically inclined mind, and they recognize that quality in each other. However close their friendship might or might not be, they can never quite seem to tear down the walls they have built around themselves--or can they?
The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a debut effort by Paolo Giordano, a young Italian physicist, and has been translated into several languages. Even though the reader can assume a lot of the vocabulary and style are the work of the translator, one must also imagine the high quality of the original text. The story may be set in another country and the characters wear slightly unfamiliar names, but the truths of teen angst, loneliness, and disfunctional families are universal. This slim book is quick and easy to read, yet in order to fully appreciate the talent of its author, the reader should instead proceed slowly, digesting each section, maybe even putting the book down for a while in order to let the story percolate in the brain.
This novel not exactly a beach read, although one could certainly finish it during a week's vacation. It requires more engagement by the reader. It's a little depressing and may hit very close to home for a lot of people, but the end does have a glimmer of hope. Alice takes up photography, and Mattia moves away to teach at a university and to work on his math research. They lose contact for a few years, but one unexpected meeting shows them how far they have come in life and how far they can still go. Prime numbers may be unique and alone, but as Mattia discovers, they also often occur in near pairs, and the two primes of Alice and Mattia learn how to, if not embrace their uniqueness, then to accept it. We all can learn from their painful experiences. Pick up this book and prepare to be challenged.