The Solitude of Prime Numbers tells the story of two young people who have been scarred (both physically and mentally, in their different ways) by events in their childhoods: Alice Della Rocca, who survived a terrible skiing accident; and Mattia Balossino, whose twin sister Michela (who had learning difficulties) was never seen again after he abandoned her on the way to a party.

Alice and Mattia meet at school, and grow… well, ‘close’ isn’t really the right word, because both find relationships awkward. Mattia, a maths prodigy, reflects that the two of them may be like twin primes, existing in such close proximity, yet never able to close the gap that separates them. And, when the adult Mattia is offered a position at a university in northern Europe, the gap between him and Alice looks set to widen irrevocably further.

Paolo Giordano’s first novel (translated into English by Shaun Whiteside, who has done a superb job) carries a certain weight of expectation, having won the prestigious Premio Strega in Italy. However, whilst I found it a good read, it never quite took off in the way I’d hoped. The characterisation of the two protagonists is key, and I think Giordano does particularly well with Mattia, whose cold personality and difficulty relating to other people are strongly evoked. This passage, for example, relates to a conversation he has with Alice when they are at school:

He wanted to tell her that her liked studying because you can do it on your own, because all the things you study are already dead, cold and chewed-over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, that they leave you time to choose, that they never hurt you and that you can’t hurt them either. But he said nothing. (102)

Giordano weaves in some aspects of the protagonists’ characters particularly subtly, which makes their impact all the greater. But Mattia seems more fully-formed than Alice to me, in that I can trace the development of his character over the course of the novel more clearly. And I just think overall that, though it’s a very eloquent book at times, The Solitude of Prime Numbers doesn’t say as much (or in as much depth) as it would like to. Giordano is definitely a name to watch for the future, I would say, but his debut is promising rather than excellent.

Video interview with Giordano