Afterthoughts: The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano In a Nutshell: Although it’s not wholly triumphant in plot, The Solitude of Prime Numbers takes the ambiguous form that is literary fiction and gives it a clear, precise and glorious definition. Definitely one for the reader who loves to see their characters squirming in a perpetual wrestling match with their inner selves.


With an ever-growing affinity towards contemporary Italian literature (in translation), I was looking forward to reading this latest translated novel to arrive from Italy; a prospect which was made all the more appealing by the fact that some were saying that this debut novel from Paolo Giordano bears some resemblance to the work of one of my favourite authors – Niccolo Ammaniti. With the novel now finished I can now tell you how the novel lives up to that claim, and whether it deserves its place as the 2008 winner of the Premio Strega Award, Italy’s most prestigious literary award.

Before I begin with my afterthoughts on The Solitude of Prime Numbers though should say that I’ve already given some background on the novel and its author in my ‘forethoughts’ post. So rather than repeat myself again on the basics, I invite you to go along and visit that post.

In a literal sense The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a fairly straightforward read. It’s not overly complicated or pretentious, and the story flows in straightforward chronological order. In a psychological sense however, reading this novel can be tough at times so be warned. Giordano explores to some depth (although not enough – see below), a number of human conditions including two of the most extreme – anorexia and self-harming. He does so in a gritty and fairly graphic way, although the eloquence of his prose (definitely one of Giodarno’s ‘gifted’ talents) can often bring beauty to something that would normally be considered abhorrent:

“Then [Mattia] slowly opened his left hand. A furrow, light in shade and perfectly straight, cut it diagonally. Around it, Alice made out scars that were shorter and paler, almost white. They filled the whole of his palm and intersected, like the branches of a leafless tree seen against the light”

As The Solitude of Prime Numbers could be defined as literary in form (one of the few titles which one feels can be clearly defined under this ambiguous genre) plot is secondary to character, and although the story is driven by event its real strength comes from the development of the characters. The two principle characters Mattia and Alice, arrive in the opening two chapters with a real bang. Both are cast in these chapters as eight-year-olds and both make a snap decision which will become monumental in scale.

Alice, for reasons which become clear, decides to hide in the dense fog away from the safety of the skiing party she’s attached to. Mattia makes the decision to leave his mentally disabled twin sister in a park while he goes to a party. Both instantaneous and fleeting acts, but both actions which have consequences that resonate throughout the entirety of the novel, and become a determining factor in Alice and Mattia’s development into adulthood and beyond.

As one may expect, the lives of Alice and Mattia intertwine and they embark on a relationship. However, without giving too much away it’s a relationship that turns out to be hugely complex, as one would expect when dealing with the complicity of character that can be found in these two. However this is where Giordano shows his real mastery, as he rises to address the unique consequences of trying to marry together two souls which are as troubled as these are.

Mattia craves solitude, but he also craves companionship, especially as he grows older. That raises a bit of a dilemma, and how Giordano plays with this is really quite remarkable. Alice craves companionship too but she has two psychological barriers which hinder her in her attempts to find it. Again Giordano plays around with this dilemma and creates an incredible story from it; a story which reaches sublime levels of intensity when both of the principle characters come together.

I said at the beginning of these afterthoughts that Giordano has been likened to Ammaniti, and I can say that there are certainly similarities in both Italian authors. Both like to toy around with characters of a diverse nature, and both have a penchant for shock writing, but that’s really where the similarities end. I’m happy to say that Giordano’s voice and style is wholly unique, and it has a real quality all of its own. I’m also happy to say that Giordano is a lot less sexually explicit than Ammaniti which is quite refreshing because I believe a writer is better when he can write without being overly sexual.

With any novel readability is a key factor of course, and with works in translation this is especially important, because with bad translation comes poor readability. However, I’m pleased to say that the English translator of this novel – Shaun Whiteside, has done a phenomenal job (as one may expect from the chair of the Translators Association Committee). The best translations are the ones which appear transparent, as though they were written in the language that the reader is reading them in, and in this respect The Solitude of Prime Numbers reads so well that it’s difficult to believe that it was written in anything but in English. A real testament to skill of Whiteside.

As good as The Solitude of Prime Numbers is though I do have a couple of small criticisms to throw at it. The first is that I feel Giordano has been a bit overly ambitious with the amount of human conditions that he’s attempted to explore in this novel. He covers a phenomenal range from the two I’ve already spoken about to many more, which include homosexuality, physical disability and autism. Consequently he’s severely limited the time and space he has to explore all of them, and it shows. Although Giordano adequately covers his exploration to some degree with a least a couple of these conditions, he never reaches the profound level that his talent and intelligence could quite easily reach to. Better he concentrated on only one or two and exhausted his study, rather than dipping a figurative toe in all of them.

The second criticism is tiny and perhaps more of a personal thing. One of the pluses that comes with reading world fiction is that one is able to get a snapshot of a different culture. However there isn’t even the hint of any flavour of Italian in The Solitude of Prime Numbers, and the only thing that gives it any Italian identity are the names of the characters. Change these and the novel could read as though it were set anywhere.

Putting these little criticisms to one side however, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a phenomenal read and it’s one which is highly recommended. It’s not often that a novel can come along and leave an indelible mark on a reader’s soul, but this novel seems to do just that. From a seasoned and aged novelist this would be a sensational achievement, but to come from a debut novelist still in the prime of his youth, is nothing short of extraordinary. If Giordano doesn’t pursue in his career as a physicist, then Italy will surely have another literary legend in the making.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Doubleday (UK) | 04 June 2009 (UK) | £12.99 | HARDBACK | 352 PP | ISBN 0385616244

:: What others have said about The Solitude of Prime Numbers ::

  • “Though Giordano is a pacy writer, there is something borderline distasteful, about the way he romanticises the pain of his star-crossed integers.”Adrian Turpin, Financial Times.
About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. Prime numbers in the title is enough to get me interested but if Giordano wrote a book about physics it would be in my hands within ten second.

  2. Hi. Since you have an affinity for Italian literature, can you recommend any contemporary Italian novels for my upcoming trip to Italy? I am looking for something that’s fairly fun (good, quick but not mindless read) and something that also gives a good flavor for contemporary Italy.


    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Hi Seth,
      Nice of you to drop by, and thank you for your question. In all reality though I’m perhaps not as genned up on contemporary Italian novels as you may think I am. Sure I’ve read all of Ammaniti’s translated novels, and Giordano’s debut, but neither author gives a real flavour of contemporary Italy (maybe with the exception of Ammaniti’s ‘I’m Not Scared’. As I’m about as useful as a chocolate fireplace in this instance then, may I direct you to the rather fine World Literature Forum, where you’re pretty much assured a better answer.
      Best of luck and drop back and let us know how your trip went (is going)
      Happy Reading

  3. I have just finished reading this remarkable book and I thought I would see what others have to say about it….and found your after thoughts. (Great idea by the way .. fore thoughts and after thoughts ..). It is refreshing to find you – someone who writes analytically and doesn’t simply regurgitate the plots. I am impressed by the confident writing of this author who keeps the narrative firmly under control. This is a book that needs to be read without any prior information!! Translation is masterly and I actually liked the vagueness of time and space.. I am living in Spain at the moment and it could have been set here too and the north european university is also vague.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      You can definitely call again. What wonderfully warm and kind things you say.

      I’m glad you agree both on the Giordano’s writing and the skill of the translator. Not everyone seems to get the profound connection with ‘Solitude’ that I did, but it looks likes you certainly did.
      Thanks for dropping by and adding you love for Giordano

  4. Yes totally agree! I wonder how much of it was based on his real-life experience. Afterall, look at how he dedicated this book to Elenora, “because in silence I promised it to you”.


  1. […] robonbooks: ..The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a phenomenal read and it’s one which is highly recommended. It’s not often that a novel can come along and leave an indelible mark on a reader’s soul, but this novel seems to do just that. From a seasoned and aged novelist this would be a sensational achievement, but to come from a debut novelist still in the prime of his youth, is nothing short of extraordinary. […]