The hook: An intense, provocative read, about two young people, set in Italy from the early ’80s to 2007. Each is a loner, an outsider or, in mathematical lingo, a prime. (High-school recap: Prime numbers are those that can’t be divided by anything but one and themselves: two, three, five, seven, etc.) Traumatic early-life experiences have had lasting effects on both — but in one another they find kindred spirits.
The plot: The messy, intoxicating, electrifying and sometimes scary days of adolescence are practically a supporting character in this compelling story. While Alice and Mattia are the centre around which the entire story revolves, the minor characters are just as evocative: the popular girl, golden and cruel; a whole cadre of giggling hangers-on; a socially awkward closeted boy. When our protagonists meet as young teens, both are intensely lonely and living outside of the strictly regimented schoolyard hierarchy. He hardly speaks, grieving and guilty over the death of his mentally challenged twin sister. She tries hard to fit in, feeling perpetually different after a childhood skiing accident left her scarred and with a limp. Both are constantly at risk of being overwhelmed by their fears and emotions; their inner turmoil is what both draws them together and keeps them apart. Are they destined to be forever like the twin primes that Mattia, a budding mathematician, discovers at university — always together, but never touching?
The inspiration: “All the emotional material is collected from my childhood and adolescence,” says Paolo. “This can only happen with a first novel; from the second one on you need to start to search for it. The overarching idea came to me when I had gotten almost halfway through writing. I realized that I was talking about the feeling of being ‘special’ and the dangers related to it; about what happens when you start to isolate yourself because you think there is something in you that other people will never understand.”
Paolo’s confession: “Mattia’s personality is similar to mine, though his physiognomy is different — dark hair, black eyes,” Paolo confides. “He’s the idealized version of me I had when I was 13. At that time, I found it hard to reconcile my blond hair and innocent look with the obscure mess I had inside. With Alice, the situation is different. She’s female, so I had to rely more on observation. She became a mix of three or four girls I met in my life and was somehow strongly bound to.”
Talking points: Love, adolescence, social isolation, ’90s culture, self-harm and eating disorders.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano, $24 (paperback), $19 (ebook).
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