The Solitude of Prime Numbers (novel)
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The Solitude of Prime Numbers (original title: La solitudine dei numeri primi) is a novel by the Italian author Paolo Giordano, and was published in 2008. It also won the 2008 Strega Prize. A cinematic adaptation of the novel was directed by Saverio Costanzo, and released in 2010.
The novel narrates the childhood and very early adulthood life of a boy, Mattia, and a girl, Alice, both of whom had exposure to traumatic situations when they were both 8 years old. Alice bears the physical scars of a terrible skiing accident which nearly killed her. Mattia bears the emotional scars of having lost his disabled twin sister, after leaving her alone in a park in order to attend the birthday party of a friend. These traumas manifest themselves again physically later in both of their lives, with Alice being anorexic, and Mattia cutting himself. At school, both are outsiders, similar to how prime numbers are outsiders from other numbers. Both lonely, they befriend each other, forming a special relationship — very close but never romantic. The relationship is compared to Prime pairs: always together, but never touching.
When the gifted Mattia is offered a job as a mathematician in a university thousands of miles away, their relationship appears to have run its course. But when Alice sights a woman who could be Mattia's sister, the two are brought back together again. Though they clearly love each other, they are unable to express their emotions.
The novel follows two main characters, Alice Della Rocca and Mattia Balossino, whose lives are scarred by events that happened in their childhood. (Although the setting is never mentioned explicitly, references to Gran Madre Church, the Basilica of Superga, the Maria Ausiliatrice hospital, and to Fraitève and Monte Fraiteve identify it as Turin.)
We first meet Alice as a seven year old girl whose father forces her to take skiing lessons, although she hates the ski school and has no particular aptitude for the sport. One morning, Alice is separated from the rest of the group. When she tries to return to the valley, she falls off a cliff, sustaining serious injuries. The girl will remain crippled for the rest of her life.
Mattia is a gifted and intelligent child, unlike his twin sister Michela, who suffers from a severe form of mental retardation. Isolated from the rest of his peers because of his "uncomfortable" sister, Mattia lives his childhood in solitude. When he and his sister are finally invited to a classmate's birthday party, Mattia leaves Michela to wait behind in a park, so he can attend the party without her. Upon his return to the park a few hours later, Michela has disappeared, perhaps drowned in a nearby pond, and is never found despite a search and investigation by the police.
These events deeply affect the lives of the two children, which the story follows over the years. We see Alice in adolescence, suffering from anorexia nervosa and snubbed by the boys as a cripple. With no social life, Alice draws the attention of Viola Bai, a popular but cruel but girl in her class, who toys with Alice and briefly lets her into her circle of friends. With Viola's encouragement, Alice meets Mattia. But Mattia is hard to get along with; he is not interested in social interactions and has an unhealthy tendency to cut himself.
Alice and Mattia strike up an unusual friendship: each of them carries on with their own life, but each time they return to look for one another. They continue to "date" even after high school. Both attend university, where Mattia studies mathematics, but Alice drops out to pursue her passion for photography. When Alice's mother Fernanda is hospitalized for cancer treatment, Alice meets Fabio Rovelli, a young doctor who takes an interest in her. Mattia, meanwhile, completes his degree and receives an offer to teach at a university in Northern Europe (probably in Norway). While he is debating whether to leave Italy and take the job, Mattia finally tells Alice about Michela, and the two kiss for the first time. However, an argument between them convinces Mattia that leaving is the right decision. Later, Fernanda dies and Alice marries Fabio, while Mattia lives alone abroad.
The marriage between Fabio and Alice gradually disintegrates. Fabio wants a child, but Alice, who hasn't menstruated for years because of anorexia, cannot get pregnant and refuses to change her eating habits. The couple separates and Alice gets depressed.
Meanwhile Mattia is a successful mathematics professor at the foreign university. He and Alberto, a colleague and fellow Italian, make an important discovery regarding algebraic topology and go and celebrate at Alberto's house. There Mattia meets Alberto's friend Nadia, and ends up spending the night with her. Back in Italy, the photographer Alice works for insists on driving her to the hospital to get help. While there she encounters an apparently retarded woman who looks a lot like Mattia, and Alice wonders if it could be Michela, the missing twin. She writes to Mattia, urging him to come home, without telling him why.
Mattia accepts the invitation and returns to Italy to see Alice. Alice, now unsure about what she saw, avoids telling him why she asked him to come. The two friends spend an afternoon together during which she kisses him and realizes that she's still in love with him. In spite of this, they both realize that cannot overcome the wall that separates them.
The two are likened to two twin primes (prime numbers separated by a single number), fated to be close but eternally separated, sharing the same characteristics, attracted towards each other, but separated by an insurmountable obstacle.
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Soledad Galienas is the Della Roccas' Ecuadorian maid. She shows a maternal affection towards Alice, though the latter does not always reciprocate and even goes as far as to blackmail Soledad to get a tattoo without her parents' permission.
Viola Bai is a classmate of Alice's. Rich and courted, but despite her very questionable behavior (again, to laugh, she encloses a classmate in the locker room of the men; another time Alice leads to truancy), becomes a role model for the protagonist who manages to get into her clique. Viola, at her birthday party, introduces Alice to Mattia. As a tribute, Alice will get a tattoo of a violet on her hip but the "friendship" ends soon with the excuse that the cake brought by Alice at the birthday party of Viola was poisoned and then Viola and her companions got sick (it's hinted it might have happened because of the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by Viola and her posse), perhaps jealous of the newborn friendship between Alice and Mattia from which she is excluded and which highlights her previous unsuccessful attempts at having a real connection with another human being. Later on, she gets married to a man named Carlo and seems to have softened somehow (even though her old self shows through when she is annoyed), as Alice notes when she is hired as a photographer for the wedding.
Denis is a classmate of Mattia's and probably his only friend, if he can even be defined as such. An initially closeted gay guy, he feels a deep attraction to Mattia (which fades with time), but the two do not talk as much after high school, and even then, they only talk on the phone.
Fabio Rovelli: the young doctor who treats Alice's mother. After a long courtship, by which showcases all his security and confidence, he manages to marry the protagonist, but he leaves her a few years later, following a dispute about her anorexia, caused by Alice's stubborn refusal to seek treatment.
Alberto Torch: he is Mattia's Italian colleague whom he met at university abroad. He is married and has a son named Philip.
Nadia: a friend of Alberto's who is introduced to Mattia midway through the novel, and with whom Mattia will end up sleeping.
Mr Della Rocca: Alice's father, an attorney whose first name is never stated clearly. He and Alice have a good relationship, after the incident. In the film, however, he is called Umberto.
Fernanda: Alice's mother who, towards the end of the book, dies of breast cancer.
Giada Savarino, Federica and Giulia Mazzoldi Mirandi: Viola's friends with whom they form the group called "the four asses".
Marcello Crozza: the photographer with whom Alice works, and who considers Alice almost like a daughter.
Peter and Adele Balossino: Mattia's parents, who struggle with Michela's mental disability (especially the former, the latter fares much better), and whose relationship falls apart after Michela's disappearance.
Riccardo Pelotti: the child who invites Mattia, and, more reluctantly, Michela, to his party. He is described as an unlikable child, appearing to have invited the twins more out of courtesy than out of real interest.
Walter: cousin of Alice.
David Poirino: classmate of Alice in eighth grade. Alice unwittingly gives her first kiss to him, who has been dared by his friends to kiss "the cripple".