To say Italian author Paolo Giordano is an overachiever is no exaggeration: this book, his debut novel, was written while he working on his thesis in physics. It won Italy’s prestigious Premio Strega literary award — making Giordano the youngest winner ever — and has gone on to sell over a million copies worldwide. In Part 1 of our chat, Stacy, Alex and I discuss up to page 96 of this contained but emotional novel. You can find the book in stores — just look for the pink Chatelaine Book Club seal — so read along with us and leave your comments to let us know what you think!
Laurie: Hello! So, sad teen life in The Solitude of Prime Numbers…
Alex: There were so many snapshot moments that were captivating, like when she was squatting at the top of the mountain.
Laurie: That poor kid! That was horrible.
Stacy: I felt there were tons of moments that were pretty horrible, for both of them. They’re such tragic figures.
Laurie: Definitely. You think, as a reader, that that’s bad. And then along come Mattia and his sister…
Alex: I was so shocked when Mattia cut his hand in the lab. I was so not ready for it, I instinctively turned away from the book — like it was TV or something. But it was too late — the image was imprinted on my mind!
Stacy: Exactly! I wasn’t ready for it. Especially since, for me at least, I felt he had gotten a bit better.
Laurie: Such trauma so early on, especially, for him. I mean, he was a little kid.
Alex: I know. So terribly tragic.
Stacy: And he’s felt guilty ever since.
Alex: I’m sure that happens to people all the time — they go through horrible things like that and there doesn’t seem to be anyone to blame.
Stacy: And so they take the blame on themselves.
Laurie: It’s true. And people are hiding so many things others know nothing about.
Alex: And the blame has to go somewhere. I love the description of Mattia and Alice together, holding hands and completing each other. That was magical.
Laurie: And yet still not looking at each other.
Stacy: I loved that everyone else saw that, but, yes, Mattia and Alice didn’t quite see it yet.
Laurie: So glad it annoyed Viola.
Alex: It was so fitting, too, that Alice annoyed her by playing Viola’s game.
Stacy: Viola is such a pest. Interesting that this was a whole other continent, and yet I feel like I knew a Viola in elementary school. She was such a vivid character.
Laurie: They’re everywhere!!!
Alex: Totally! God, the candy!
Stacy: YUCK. I was just thinking about that.
Laurie: And of course as an adult, you’re thinking: just tell her to take a hike.
Stacy: But remembering what it was like as a kid, you know that’s the most impossible thing.
Alex: I was right back in my change rooms.
Stacy: During gym?
Alex: No. The even more awkward before and after part, when you’re trying to get your clothes on and off without anyone seeing anything!!
Laurie: It’s interesting that Giordano captured all that roiling emotion in quite a dispassionate way. In fact, I like how the opening of the novel was set during the winter. All that cold and snow set the tone: icy, chilly and detached somehow.
Stacy: You’re right, it is quite detached, almost scientific: this thing happens, which leads to that thing, which causes the next thing…
Laurie: Which has the effect of making it more emotional, surprisingly, I think. It’s an interesting technique.
Stacy: I agree. I gasped out loud when I read about Michela disappearing, and Alice and the candy, and Mattia and the knife. And even poor Denis kissing Giulia without wanting to.
Alex: Like a choose your own adventure, sliding doors kind of thing. It was very arresting in places.
Stacy: Or Alice asking Mattia to cut off her tattoo, because now Viola isn’t someone to emulate… I cringed.
Alex: That was soooo scary. Thank goodness he said he couldn’t go through with it!
Again I pictured one of my high-school bathrooms.
Stacy: Did you think he would at any point? I was pretty sure he wouldn’t, but I was still scared he might.
Alex: I didn’t know at all — I was that sucked in. And I really felt Alice’s pain. And he //ALEX, CAN YOU CLARIFY WHO PLS? GIORDANO? MATTIA?// just knows what to say without forcing it.
Laurie: It’s so cool and collected, it feels in some ways that not very much has happened, and yet so much has. Such intense emotions on the inside, fighting to get out and yet trapped.
Stacy: I think that’s a huge theme in both their lives. They both have these horrible, traumatic pasts and are quite sad. But on the outside, they’re both doing their best to shuffle along and not attract notice — safer that way
Laurie: Much safer. But so lonely.
Stacy: They understand one another on a fundamental level. Even without being totally aware of it. Yes, very lonely.
Laurie: And yet, I don’t know if Mattia recognizes that they understand each other on some level.
Stacy: I just want to give them both a hug, which of course would not help either of them at all. I’m more likely to get shrugged off!
Laurie: They would run!
Stacy: Haha! They really would.
Laurie: I think Mattia much more isolated and damaged that even she is.
Stacy: Yes, Alice is the less damaged one in that pairing — not that she’s not undamaged, mind!
Alex: That’s real angst. I mean, more serious than my boy-related stuff.
Stacy: My childhood/teenage years were all candy and sunshine compared to these two!
Alex: It seems her experiences are less extreme, but I think it could be just that we’re more familiar with her issues like anorexia vs. self harm like cutting, but they are coming from similar places.
Stacy: And she can blame someone else (her dad, the instructor, the weather, etc.) for what happened.
Alex: That’s true, she has someone to be mad at.
Stacy: There’s definitely a degree of familiarity. I understand body image issues, and I get the desire for control. But I also can’t quite imagine blaming myself for my sibling’s death.
Alex: I think maybe if I were Mattia as an adult I might blame my parents.
Laurie: He was very young to be made responsible for her, and to be made her keeper, so to speak.
Alex: It was unfair.
Laurie: It was, to him, if not Michela, and he wasn’t the solution to that. But Alice is more willing to reach out to others, even now. Mattia’s not. Denis is the one initiating things, not Mattia.
Stacy: And even when Alice asks, “Do you want to kiss me?” she’s not embarrassed to reach out like that. He couldn’t even answer her question.
Alex: True. She still wants to be accepted and knows her mind.
Laurie: He’s being swept along by events. She’s a more active participant. It’s like a chemical reaction — he’s not an active ingredient, he’s inert.
Stacy: He’s so stuck in his own head. And so intellectual. Like when his dad was driving him to school and he muses on the raindrops’ velocity.
Alex: He has probably had to feel guilty for a long while before that, because he got so much that his sis didn’t.
Stacy: He finds safety in numbers. It’s interesting because I think that is how he comforts himself: with facts that don’t change (math, numbers, science), not words, which can be twisted.
Alex: True. He’s always distracting himself with facts. They are constant, dependable.
Stacy: He likes being able to control the outcome. And what’s anorexia? Controlling your body, by overcoming your biological urge to eat. Another connection Mattia and Alice have.
Alex: Exactly! They both find comfort in control.
Laurie: Constant facts. Consistency. Invariability. All good for him. She and everyone else is an unknown. It will be interesting to see what happens with them.
Stacy: Yes. She’s a variable in his neatly ordered life. Kind of scary.
Laurie: He is too, to her, but again, she’s more open.
Alex: I just adore them together.
Stacy: They’re drawn to one another, and that scene at the party perfectly illustrates that now that they’ve found one another, they won’t ever really leave each other’s orbit.
Laurie: So, we’ll see next week if they started orbiting any closer?
Stacy: Yes! I hope they do. I want them to heal each other’s hurts.
Alex: I think that’s likely.
Laurie: Well, same time, same place! Ciao!