a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Evelyn Havilland, who left her studies in mathematics at Stanford University in 1917 to aid with the war effort, must decide between marrying a linguistics professor she met when they were both working as cryptographers or staying home in California to help her shell-shocked cousin and crippled father. Although it starts out as a charming historical romance, the second half of this thought-provoking novel becomes more serious as it addresses the sacrifices that people make and the way that life (especially life during wartime) can break their spirits.
Of course, as you might guess from the fact that I am reviewing it here, it also has some connections to mathematics. In fact, it arises relatively frequently. Evelyn's high school teacher recognized her mathematical abilities and assigned her extra work (like translating Hilbert's 1900 address into English) and encourages her to go to Stanford. At university her perfect placement score allows her to take a graduate number theory seminar where she is one of the only students who understands what the professor is talking about. The professor involves her in math research but also tells her about the lives of mathematicians like Euler and Gauss. (Gauss is described as not caring about his family, a myth that I have heard before but am told is not historically accurate. See for example this review of Measuring the World.) There is a discussion comparing Einstein's discoveries to the questions about the foundations of mathematics that were raised by Hilbert. (Contrary to what the book says, special relativity is not limited to the case of constant velocity. Both special and general relativity include acceleration.) The cryptography work that she does is not particularly mathematical (aside from a bit of frequency analysis), but Evelyn continues to think of herself as a mathematician and to be interested in doing math research. She tries her hand at the Four Color Theorem. When she returns to California after the war to take care of her family she becomes a math teacher and so we see a bit more about math education.
I am pleased to say that none of the mathematicians in the book are the one-dimensional stereotypes that are often encountered in fiction. Here, they seem to just be ordinary people whose interests and careers happen to include mathematics.
Knowing that this was historical fiction about a female math student, I expected to see sexism being an obstacle to the protagonist's goal of becoming a mathematician. Unlike the mathematical stereotypes that I find annoying, this cliche is entirely realistic. I really believe that a female student pursuing studies in mathematics in the period represented in this novel would have been discouraged or even actively blocked by many of the men she encountered. And yet the male characters around Evelyn in this novel are surprisingly supportive. They not only assure her that she is a talented mathematician, they tell her that she is better than all of the men around her. They encourage her to pursue her studies and always arrange for jobs when she needs them. Still, her professor apologizes to her when he meets her again in the 1950s towards the end of the book:
Even if he was guilty of treating her differently because of her sex, this insight from a male math professor in the early 20th century would be quite ahead of its time. (Anyway, Evelyn goes on to assure him it was her own choices and not his failure to support her that kept her from becoming a professional mathematician.) In another part of the book where I was surprised at the complete absence of sexism, Evelyn instantly becomes the principal of the school at which she was teaching when the position opens up because everyone recognized that she was far more capable than the man who was already vice-principal.
The only sexism that Evelyn encounters is very mild. (Some jokes from the soldiers on the train coming home from the war and a back-handed compliment about how rare her talents are among women.) This cannot be because the author is naive. Gay Daly was among the first female graduates of Yale, and the character of Evelyn is based only somewhat loosely on the real life of one of her own relatives whom she met. In my opinion, the lack of sexism among the men that Evelyn encounters in the novel is an interesting choice on the part of the author.
After the last chapter, Daly tells us a bit about her grandmother's cousin Evelyn who inspired this book and the author's interest in mathematics: "It's no coincidence I dreamed about going to Stanford or that I wanted to be a mathematician. I always loved math and still do, but once I saw I wouldn't be traveling beyond calculus, I turned to my greater strength -- a love of words."
In an appendix aimed at book groups, the author also comments briefly on the difficulties faced by women in mathematics today. She says "It may be easier today for women to become mathematicians, but that does not mean it is anything resembling easy." She then cites some statistics about the percentage of female faculty in several math related disciplines.
This novel paints a somber picture of love, family, and war. A cynic would say it is life the way it is rather than the way we wish it was. It is interesting to contrast that with its portrayal of mathematics (as a school subject, a field of research, and as a community), which is comparatively sunny and positive. Both of these extremes may be exaggerated, but that does not detract from this lovely novel which is highly recommended.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)