a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|This book is simultaneously a beautiful love story with frequent allusions to the myth of Orpheus, a political thriller, and a gut wrenching tear jerker about people whose lives are destroyed by war. Oh...and there's some math in it as well!
Leela Moore is the daughter of a slightly crazy preacher from South Carolina who "escapes" to Harvard and MIT where she studies math, earns a PhD and gets a postdoctoral position. Her research is in the mathematics of music, and she falls in love instantly with Mishka, a musician she hears playing Gluck's Che faro senza Euridice in the subway. Leela and Miskha seem to be two of a kind, her obsessed with math and him obsessed with music, each somewhat anti-social. In Miskha's case, it turns out that his awkwardness is a consequence of being raised in an isolated Australian rain forest home by a single mother and grandparents who survived internment at Auschwitz. She is surprised, therefore, to learn that her Jewish boyfriend is frequenting a Mosque and consorting with terrorists. As a result, he is captured by a private security firm employed by the US government and taken to Iraq where he is interrogated in an underground prison previously used by Saddam Hussein. (And here we clearly see the analogy to Orpheus, where Miskha plays the role of Euridice, suffering real torture at the hands of American agents rather than spending an eternity in the underground afterlife of Hades.)
In addition to terrorism (taking the form of suicide bombings in the US -- fortunately still fiction at this time), the Holocaust, and the immorality of America's system of "rendition" of suspects, the novel also touches on the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the mistreatment of the veterans, racism, slavery, domestic violence, alcoholism, family dynamics, and the conflict between fundamentalist and moderate Muslims. The novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and politically. In describing it now, in retrospect, it seems perhaps overly ambitious to attempt to include all of this in a single novel, but the author largely succeeds. There were a few points, while reading it, that my credulity was strained. Things become rather contrived and nearly "magical" at points, but it still all works.
Clearly, mathematics is not the main point of the book. In fact, Leela could easily have been a historian or a garbage collector and the book would not have been substantially different. However, Hospital decided to make her a mathematician, and consequently mathematics runs through the book as a major theme and a frequent topic of discussion. Since that is really the focus of this website, for the remainder of this review, I will be addressing the mathematics in the book.
It is unfortunate that Hospital did not know more about music and/or mathematics. She knows enough about these things to make the book work as it is, but if could have been even better if she had known more. In a few places, her revealed ignorance of the subject interrupted my enjoyment of the book. For instance, although her description of Fermat's Last Theorem on the very first page of the novel may serve a poetic purpose, it confuses terms such as "solution" and "proof" so that the result is messy. (A musical example is her reference to "frets" and "fingering chords", both of which are terms that would be appropriate when applied to a guitarist, but not to a violinist.)
The following dialogue takes place towards the beginning, when Mishka and Leela first meet:
In fact, this short passage contains two of the ideas I wish to address that are then repeated and further developed throughout the book.
Math does appear in two other ways in the story. Leela's father, combining his fundamentalist Christian beliefs with his grief over his wife's death, has become obsessed with numerology. (For instance, he refuses to open a letter from Leela since it is her sixth letter and was mailed on June 6th...the number of the beast!) She even mentions this as being the inspiration for her "addiction to numbers". Also, her childhood friend (who, coincidentally, grows up to run a private "security" firm involved in protecting America from terrorists and plays a role in the abduction of Mishka) is the mathematically talented son of a mathematics teacher.
Other mathematical remarks in the book include:
In conclusion, let me remark that my own appreciation of this book could possibly have been influenced by coincidence. As a mathematician who lives in South Carolina and received my PhD in Boston, this book references many locations and events that I can relate to personally. However, I am confident that others will find this book as exciting and moving as I did even if they do not share these connections to the plot.
|Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com.|
|(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)|
May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the Amazon.com page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)