I was fully expecting, purely for reasons of professional envy, to dislike this book. Anyone whose first novel sells more than a million copies worldwide, and goes on to win Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, is bound to turn the rest of us slightly green. Add to that the fact that Paolo Giordano is the right side of 30 and that writing is, for him, but a hobby (he’s actually a particle physicist) and you’ll understand why I was tightening up my laces to give his pretentiously titled tome a good kicking.
But actually it’s a very accomplished book and deserves all its success. It is ostensibly a coming-of-age novel about two people who had traumatic incidents in their childhoods. Alice had a skiing accident, broke her leg and is forever labeled a cripple because of her limp. Mattia, meanwhile, abandoned his twin sister in a park; because she was mentally retarded, he found her an embarrassing encumbrance. She was never seen again. Giordano traces the next 24 years of their lives: their dislocation from society, their discomfort with their overbearing or overly solicitous parents, their distance from their school friends and even from each other. The title comes from Mattia’s notion (he’s a math buff) that Alice and he are “twin primes”, like 11 and 13, or 17 and 19, lonely individuals that are forever linked but forever separated.
Much of the novel is taken up with the pair’s painful, awkward teenage years. There are, inevitably, prolonged episodes of self-harm and anorexia. There’s a tattooing incident and much anxiety about kissing and physical contact. There are many scenes about the cruelty, self-consciousness and forced spontaneity of adolescence. It’s a pretty bleak read but hypnotic at the same time because, like a helpless parent, you come to care so much about these damaged children.
Mattia is the archetypal child prodigy who finds it easier to relate to numbers than humans. He’s an antisocial character, unable to look people in the eye or unburden himself of his guilt. His only relationship in life is with mathematical patterns and geometrical shapes, with the result that he pulls out pretty bizarre metaphors: kissing becomes “a banal sequence of vectors”; people wave their hands “as if imitating the shape of a helicoid”; when his legs tremble the word “anelastic” springs into his head.
Alice is only slightly more functional. She tries to bring Mattia out, to coax him into an adult world, but she herself remains in the grip of a disorder. She’s repulsed by the physicality of food and her life starts to stutter to a halt like a car running out of petrol. Other minor characters, such as gay Denis or smooth Fabio, are equally convincingly portrayed, as are a series of tiny observations, such as the fact that during an argument inanimate objects become “terribly insistent.”
Part of the success of the book comes from its minimalism. Scenes, dialogue and descriptions are — in sharp contrast to the florid nature of much Italian fiction — brief, almost terse. It would have been easy to fall into melodrama and produce a happy resolution, but Giordano remains as icy as his characters, offering only misunderstandings and missed opportunities until the bitter end. The moment of truth comes with Mattia locked in a bathroom, forced to make a decision. Instead of concluding that “things are meant to be,” that there might be meaning or purpose or fate or providence, he simply concludes that people clutch at coincidences “and from them they draw a life.” Mattia, it’s clear, is not one to clutch at coincidences, let alone a woman.