“A prime number is a lonely thing,” says the book jacket for Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Primes can only be divided by one and themselves, which make them interesting mathematical phenomena.
Prime numbers also serve as the metaphor for Giordano’s lonely protagonists, Alice and Mattia, forever unable, it seems, to articulate their love for each other.
Mattia, a brilliant mathematician, studies primes, in part because they fascinate him and in part because he relates to them. “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,” Giordano writes. “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.”
His brilliance might have been the socially isolating brilliance that beleaguers many grade-school nerds, but a childhood tragedy magnifies that isolation to crippling proportions. It also turns Mattia into a cutter, giving him scars on his arms and hands that match those on his psyche.
Alice, too, has suffered childhood trauma—one that leaves her with a limp and an eating disorder that she’s ferociously defensive about. Like Mattia, she’s constructed a lonely-but-safe bubble for herself.
Their individual isolation helps them form a mutual bond as teenagers. As their relationship deepens with the passage of time, they discover they can’t find a way into the other’s self-imposed space, mostly because they can’t even find a way out of the spaces they’ve made for themselves. “There was an enormous list of things to say floating over their heads,” Giordano writes, “and both of them tried to ignore it by looking at the floor.”
In some respects, the novel becomes one of those typical tales where two people just can’t seem to find a way to tell each other how they really feel, and as a result of their inability to communicate, fate pulls them apart. Most of the book is about that slow, torturous pulling apart rather than the “will they ever get together” part.
That pulling and rending certainly allows Giordano to explore the nature of love, but his book is just as much an examination of loneliness. Alice and Mattia are each profoundly alone, and their awkward togetherness only accentuates just how alone they each are. Neither seems to like being alone, but they recognize the loneliness as familiar. The also recognize the inertia in would take to break out of that loneliness, and neither can must the energy.
Mattia, for instance, “wanted to tell her that he liked studying because you can do it alone, because all the things you study are already dead, cold, and chewed over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbook were all the same temperature, that they left you time to choose, that they never hurt you and you couldn’t hurt them, either. But he said nothing.”
Mattia’s passivity makes him a bit tough to like as a protagonist at times, as does Alice’s abrasiveness. Such negatives, of course, help to make them more fully realized as characters, though, which is what helps make Giordano’s novel feel so true.
Giordano pays similar attention to even the minor characters, giving them each life with just a few well-grounded characteristics, like a mother who “often abandoned her sentences halfway through, as if she had forgotten what she was going to say as she was saying it” or a high school chum with secret guilt that “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.”
The episodic nature of the novel allows Giordano to compress a lifetime of experiences into 271 pages, although each episode feels full and fleshed out, and each one offers its own final takeaway for readers to ponder. The cumulative effect is sad—and a reader can’t help but pity the protagonists in a real, non-patronizing way—although Giordano tries to end the novel on a series of affirming notes. The pall of solitude throughout the rest of the book undercuts his attempts, though, so on the very last pages, it finally feels like the author might be trying a little too hard. At least he avoids clichés, which helps.
“In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special,” Giordano writes. “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.” Eleven and thirteen are examples, as are seventeen and nineteen.
“Mattia thought that he and Alice were like…twin primes,” Giordana writes, “alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other.”
And, of course, Mattia had never told her that.