Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a striking concept, but a mediocre novel.
Giordano presents two characters, each with a childhood trauma: Mattia, who unwittingly makes a life-changing decision when he abandons his twin sister and she subsequently goes missing; and Alice, pressured into skiing competitively by her pushy father from a young age.
It is not surprising that Mattia should struggle to build human relationships. Although the loner-obsessed-with-maths character that Giordano creates is rather clichéd, his story comes with a real sense of underlying hurt from the debilitating trauma that constantly nags away at him. The reader can quickly sympathise with Mattia, even whilst lamenting the lack of subtlety with which his character is developed.
On the other hand, Alice’s route to solitude is less clear. Throughout the novel, her actions and intentions never seem to have much foundation, which may be an intentional ploy used by Giordano. In this way, he could be shining a light on human turbulence and our tendency to hurt ourselves and others by failing to understand and control our own feelings.
Even so, it is hard to feel anything towards Alice other than mild annoyance. The episodes with school bully Viola – another one-dimensional character – are particularly tiresome, and the fact that Alice’s greatest triumph is spoiling her former bully-turned-friend-returned-bully’s wedding photos epitomises the lack of depth of her character.
Reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers is not a waste of time because reading is never a waste of time. But there are an abundance of stories that deal with emotional trauma in far more subtle and believable ways.
Update: I can’t help drawing a comparison between Giordano’s minimalistic style and that of Amélie Nothomb. Both authors take the reader through a period of their characters’ respective lives, feeding us information directly rather than showing it through expansive description. For me, the main reason Diane is a superior character to Alice or Mattia is the deeper understanding we have of her person, which comes from Nothomb’s unpretentious and subtle narrative flow. In comparison, Giordano is heavy handed, dealing with hugely complex issues through simplifications and worn stereotypes.