Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 2 January 2009

"la solitudine dei numeri primi" by Paolo Giordano (Mondadori, 2008)

The two main characters - Alice and Mattia - both have secrets which they keep from each other through their school friendship. But for a few interruptions from Dennis (who has a secret too) chapters alternate between them as we follow them episodically to adulthood. Alice's limp is evident, but her eating disorder is discovered only later by her husband. Mattia confesses his secret source of guilt to Alice. His detachment and somewhat autistic attraction to order aren't secret. They're both self-harmers.

The writing's sparse and attractive, focussing on significant detail - years may pass unrecorded, but the color of the elastic band around the asparagus matters. Towards the end though I felt that the symbolism and the need to tie up loose ends were taking over. While in a car he reads "Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear" and the warning is repeated before another character (on p.292) thinks "A guardarli attraverso l'acqua, i chicchi sembravano piu grandi". Then on p.293 we read about a tea-bag's color dissipating in hot water (which has happened before). On p.295 we have blood and water making a circuit as it did earlier with different characters. p.296 is when Mattia makes his crucial decision: a passage that seems a bit telly to me - the narrator thinks back through the book rather than the character reviewing his life.

Given the small cast I was tempted to look for connections - how much does Alice compensate Mattia for his lost twin sister? (answer: he neglects both of them); how does Fabio compensate Alice for the loss of Mattia? (answer: Mattia sees but doesn't understand. Fabio sees, understands, but doesn't do anything, though his social skills are better than Mattia's)

The 3rd person privileged text tackles eating disorder, borderline autism, cancer and first visits to gay clubs convincingly enough for me. The main lack of believability concerned Fabio's delay in confronting Alice about her eating problems. The later plot's delicately poised. At the end I expected their car accident to lead to meeting Fabio in the hospital, then after Mattia's last visit to Alice I expected him to make for the suspiciously long-absent Dennis. In the first chapter Alice lies in snow, lost, and moves her out-spread arms up and down to make an outline of an angel. The final chapter (hers) ends with "Sorrise verso il cielo terso. Con un po' di fatica, sapeva alzarsi da sola". One might almost believe the two of them have become happier, each freed of some burden.

Readers seem divided about the book for several reasons, some less literary than others

  • It's a prizewinning bigseller from a young newcomer, which is bound to arouse envy
  • The author's been on expensive writing courses. Moreover, the courses are something to do with a writer who's involved with the publisher
  • The style and emotional depth has been described as adolescent. The main characters are rather inexpressive and perhaps remain adolescent, so the confusion is understandable.
  • It's too depressing, or at least too unremitting.

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