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 an Italian writer Paolo Giordano, published in 2008. It also won the 2008 Strega Prize.[1] A film version of the novel, with minor adaptations and directed by Saverio Costanzo, was released in 2010.

Plot Summary[edit]

The novel narrates the childhood and 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, much as 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 takes place supposedly in Turin and has two main characters, Alice Della Rocca and Mattia Balossino, whose lives are severely marked by events that happened in their childhood. Although Turin is never mentioned explicitly, there are references to the Gran Madre Church, home of the Bai -Viola wedding, the Basilica of Superga, the hospital Maria Ausiliatrice and to Fraitève and Monte Fraiteve, where Alice gets hurt running out into the ravine.

Alice is described as a seven year old girl who, despite hating the ski school and not showing any particular aptitude for the sport, is forced to attend a ski course by her father, who has high expectations about her. One morning, Alice is separated from the rest of the group and her attempt to return to the valley, results in falling over a cliff, remaining seriously injured. The girl will remain crippled for the rest of her life.

Mattia is a gifted and intelligent child, unlike his twin sister Michela, who is instead suffering 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. Eventually one day, to be able to attend the birthday party of a classmate, he leaves his sister in a park, deciding to pick her up later. Upon his return to the park a few hours later, Michela has disappeared, perhaps drowned in a nearby pond, and she remains missing, since all the researches by the police were inconclusive.

These events mark deeply the lives of the two children. The story moves on in the period of their adolescence: Alice suffers from anorexia nervosa and is snubbed by the boys as lame. With no social life, Alice draws the attention of Viola Bai, a very popular girl in her class, who decides to let her into her circle of friends. Thanks to the encouragement of Viola, Alice meets Mattia. The latter is a difficult child: he is not interested in social interactions and has an unhealthy tendency to self-harm.

Alice and Mattia strike up a 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. While Mattia enrolls in a mathematics degree course at university, Alice develops a passion for photography, choosing to leave university to pursue it. Meanwhile, Fernanda, the mother of Alice, is diagnosed with cancer and is brought to hospital. While there Alice meets Fabio Rovelli, a young doctor who takes an interest in her. Mattia, meanwhile, achieves his degree, and receives an offer for a teaching position at a university in Northern Europe (probably in Norway). The offer leaves him very doubtful, as it complicates his life choices. In this period of his life, Mattia tells for the first time to the story of Michela to Alice and the two kiss for the first time. However, an argument between Alice and Mattia convinces the boy to leave. Eventually Fernanda dies and Alice marries Fabio, while Mattia lives alone abroad.

The marriage between Fabio and Alice declines slowly: Fabio wants a child from Alice but she, not having menstruated for years because of anorexia, can not get pregnant. The couple separates and Alice gets depressed.

Meanwhile Mattia exercise successfully the teaching profession in algebraic topology at the foreign university, where he met a colleague, Alberto, who was also Italian. The two make an important discovery regarding algebra and go and celebrate at Alberto's house. In that occasion Mattia meets a woman, Nadia, a friend of his colleague, with whom he will later spend the night. Meanwhile the years pass. In 2007, Alice is coaxed by her employer (photographer) into seeing by a doctor at the hospital, but there at the entrance she comes across a girl who looks a lot like Matt, and Alice is reminded of Michela, the disappeared twin: although not certain the identity of the girl, Alice decides to call Mattia without giving a reason.

Mattia, despite not knowing what it is, accepts the invitation and returns to Italy to see Alice: Alice,now doubtful about the identity of the girl, does not find the courage to tell Mattia what she thought she had seen, but the two friends spend an afternoon together during which she kisses him and found it to be still in love with him. In spite of this can not overcome the loneliness wall that separates them, and Matthias restart without that their relationship had no development.

The two are in fact likened to two twin primes (prime numbers lonely and isolated, but close to each other, as separated by a single number), shared the same characteristics, attracted towards each other, they never manage to join because separated by an insurmountable obstacle.

Secondary Characters[edit]

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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 males; 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" end 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 cancer.

Giada Savarino, Federica and Giulia Mazzoldi Mirandi: Viola's friends with whom they form the group called "the four bitches".

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".