This unusual historical novel is set in Basel, Switzerland, in 1725 and is narrated by the 18-year-old Leonhard Euler.
Leonhard, who was then a student in Basel, would go on to become one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, known for both the tremendous quantity and great originality of his work. Paul Robertson's credible portrayal of Euler includes several qualities of character consistent with the young man's later success, including diligence and self-discipline; an active imagination; and a passion for mathematics fueled by the conviction that his work glorified his Creator.
As Malcolm Gladwell might point out, the success of an "outlier" like Euler also can be partially explained by the exceptional opportunities available to him, especially the chance to work under Johann Bernoulli during the time when the techniques and applications of calculus were being developed. The Bernoulli family, which was brilliant but divided by rivalry and jealousy, is also a major part of Euler's life and Robertson's story.
As the story begins, Johann's sons Daniel and Nicolaus come back home to Basel for a visit, and Euler finds himself in the middle of the family's strife. Shortly after their arrival a local man is murdered, and the body is found in a trunk that seems to have connections to the Bernoullis. While studying the mathematical and physical laws of the universe, Euler also searches for the truth about the murder, an investigation involving the complex dynamics of the Bernoulli family and the power structure of the local university.
Highlights of the novel include Robertson's depiction of Euler and the Bernoullis and his rich descriptions of Basel and its university life and politics. For readers interested in the history of mathematics, lots of questions will be raised. In particular, the "elegant solution" of the title is Euler's famous discovery of the sum of the infinite series 1 + 1/4 + 1/9 + 1/16 + ..... . Did Euler really discover the answer this early in his career?
Potential readers need not be put off by the fact that the novel comes from a Christian publisher. Religion only enters the picture in places where it naturally might in the mind of a young scientist viewing the world through Christian lenses.