Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The premise/title of this book is one of the most original and promising I've come across in a long time. Prime numbers, as we learned in school, are numbers that are divisible only by themselves and the number one. Some of these are very close together, 41 and 43, for example, but they never touch, they are always separated by at least one other number. Prime numbers are destined for solitude.

What an elegant idea. The aloneness and close-but-not-quite
relationships are perfectly captured in this title.

Each of the two protagonists in this novel makes a life-changing decision in their childhood. The tragedies that befall them as the result cast them into an isolation that nothing can break through, not even family, or perhaps, especially not family. The two of them meet up in their youth, drawn to each other without knowing the grief that lies in the other. In their adult life, they are apart, both wondering where and how the other fits.

The author uses a subtle way of telling the story. He doesn't belabor the emotional state of the characters but trusts that readers will deduce from the details he has provided. It works very well for the story.

This subtlety, of not spelling out the intended conclusion for the reader, didn't serve me as well for the ending. In the last quarter of the book, the plot picks up, suggesting a strong possibility of a particular type of resolution. Until that point, I was willing to go with the author, to see where he will take the story. With those events in the plot, I started thinking about an either-or solution. Not only was I disappointed in the direction that took me, but I was also frustrated by how the story actually ended.

I don't always need conclusions to be drawn and themes to be spelled out. I love endings that leave me wondering. But this ending wasn't one of those.

The reason, I believe, is that I don't think the relationship between the two protagonists have been shown convincingly enough for me. Because of that, it fell into a standard will-girl-get-back-with-boy plot rather than will-two-prime-numbers-who-are-misunderstood-by-the-world-find-each-other-and-how-will-their-lives-be-connected-if-at-all.

I got the pain and sorrow and guilt each one of the protagonists feels. I got their feelings of not belonging. I just never got the nature of the tie between them or how strong or unique it was. And that's the reason I didn't feel that the ending worked for me.

A movie is being made/has been made based on the book. And I think it may work better. Chemistry between people can be shown on screen much more effectively than on the page. Wonder if it'll be the case of this story.

This is the first review I've written since my post in which I declare myself no longer a slave to fear. Okay, maybe it's less dramatic than that.But I do want to share more of the things about books that give me pause. If only for the reaction I get from others who have read it.

So my question to you, my friends, is this: which is your reaction?
  • "Oh, well. I'll probably skip the book."
  • "Hmm. I wonder if I'll get it more clearly than she did. Let me read it to find out."
  • "Not sure if I understand her problem with the book."
  • Other. Please describe.
I'd really love to know.


Domey Malasarn said...

This review really makes me want to read the book, Yat-Yee. I really like how you introduced it. I liked the title to begin with, but I like it even more after you explained it. You also made me curious to see how I would respond to the ending.

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for letting me know, Domey. I am curious as to how you'd see the ending. As well as a little insecure. What if it was clear to you what the author was doing and he did it brilliantly but I just didn't get it? But that's one of the risks I take when I share my views.

Domey Malasarn said...

Yat-Yee, what I'm guessing is that the good- or bad-ness of the ending is a matter of taste. The reason your review got me so interested is because I really like those loose and vague endings. I love slice-of-life movies and books that have other people saying "nothing happened the whole time." Your review helps me to see this book and judge if I will like it myself or not.

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for clarifying. I too, like many of those nothing-happened type movies and books. And this book started that way and if it hadn't included some of the happenings toward the end that seem to suggest Something was about to Happen, I'd probably have been more satisfied with it. I just felt as if I was led down a certain path and then abruptly went back to the original one.

Domey Malasarn said...

Ah, yes, that makes sense. It actually sounds a lot like how I mess up some of my own stories! :)

By the way, have you seen the movie Another Year? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1431181/ It's a fantastic "nothing happened" movie.

Yat-Yee said...

I just saw the trailer. I must watch it. Even those few scenes have evoked a certain kind of feeling in me. Thanks for the recommendation.

Oh, you mustn't call them messed-up, more like trials and experiments.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I think this is fabulous writing about reading. It makes me want to read the book even if you didn't like the ending (I admit that I think almost every novel ever written has a weak ending).

Maybe I know what you mean about how a book sets itself up to go in a certain direction and then at the end the writer changes that direction. It's like he's broken all the rules of the game he set out for himself, and that can feel like a cheat. I've also read novels that begin as interesting and individual forms that end up flattening out into standard formula stories and that disappoints me, too.

Still, this was a very fine way to talk about the book.

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks, Scott!

I think what you mentioned is one big reason I like to read literary fiction. Every book sets up its own rules and anything is possible if the author is convinced and convincing. It also makes every book somewhat of an experiment and that can be exciting or in itself.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"if the author is convinced and convincing"

Yeah! If we read something and think "I don't believe this," then maybe the author didn't believe it either. And if the author doesn't stay with his original premise, maybe he didn't have the courage of his convictions.

Domey Malasarn said...

Y'all's comments have just made me break out into a cold sweat, partly from being excited about writing and partly because I know how hard this is for me.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I always get nervous when I'm writing the end of a book or a story. It's tempting not to follow through with the original vision I had and just write something cliche that will reinforce the average reader's prejudices. What's hard is to ignore all of the stereotypes and write what I really believe I should be writing. The temptation to pull my punches or change direction is right there in front of me.

But we've all promised to be brave, mighty writers, haven't we?

Yat-Yee said...

Yes, we'll be brave and do what we must do, cold sweat or otherwise.

Karen Lange said...

Thanks for the review! May have to check this out.

Yat-Yee said...

If you do, let me know what you think of the book.