The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
Viking, March 18, 2010


Debut author (and professional physicist) Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers has been an international sensation, selling more than 1 million copies in Italy. On March 18, it will hit shelves in the U.S. That I read the book in a timeframe of 36 hours should tell you all you need to know, but I’ll write a bit more. In alternating chapters, the book is from the point of view of Alice and Mattia over a period of 24 years. Both are haunted by childhood disasters, and both are lonely misfits, trapped within neuroses and obsessions. They are drawn to one another because—in the mind of Mattia, who is a brilliant mathematician—they are “twin primes.” Read the excerpt below to learn why.


Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they’d been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace. Other times 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. 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.

In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. 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. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. . .

Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. He had never told her that.


Related in BookPage: Can't wait for March 18? Read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, about a boy with "the capacity to calculate every prime number up to 7,057, but an utter inability to express anger, love or fear."

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