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Orpheus Lost: A Novel (2007)
Janette Turner Hospital

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:

(quoted from Orpheus Lost: A Novel)

"[Mishka:] "Look, the truth is, I'm a recluse. I live inside my music, really. I tend to shut out everything else."

"We're two of a kind I suspect."

He smiled politely at this, patently disbelieving.

"Except I live inside pure mathematics," she said, "which makes less sense than living inside music, though in my own opinion, my private cave is just as beautiful".

In fact, this short passage contains two of the ideas I wish to address that are then repeated and further developed throughout the book.

  • It is interesting that Leela mentions "pure mathematics". In fact, aside from the brief mention of Fermat's Last Theorem, all of the math mentioned in the book is applied mathematics: her own research connected to music, a project she did as a child in which she statistically studies the descendants of slaves and their owners, a project done by a friend on the mathematics of Civil War weaponry. Of course, there is nothing wrong with applied mathematics, but the fact that it is repeatedly described in the book as being "pure" is odd. Especially when you combine it with her comment that "living in math makes less sense than living in music". I think most mathematicians, especially applied mathematicians, would not say this. Rather, they see math as a useful tool -- perhaps the most useful tool -- for understanding and manipulating the world around us.
  • This brief discussion also brings up the idea that she (and Mishka, also) hides behind mathematics as a way to get away from the real world. This is a common stereotype in mathematical fiction, and one that I find very annoying. The implication is that one must make a choice between mathematics and reality, and that mathematicians are those who have chosen to avoid people. (Later remarks include her advisor saying: "We understand numbers, not people.") IMHO, mathematicians (on average) are as comfortable with reality and social customs as anyone else. Interestingly, despite the frequent remarks in the book to the contrary, Leela seems to be quite normal. She's tough, outgoing, promiscuous...but not ignorant, naive or anti-social in the ways you might expect from all of these comments.

    My other pet-peeve, the suggestion that mathematicians are mentally unstable, also comes up when her advisor wonders to himself why all mathematicians (every one since Newton, he says) are crazy. Certainly, at that point in the story, Leela has begun acting a bit strange. But, considering the circumstances (her boyfriend being abducted and tortured by her government), one does not need to refer to her interest in math to explain it.

As for Leela's research, Hospital does realize that mathematics has a beauty to those who are able to appreciate it, and she wishes to show us that Leela feels this way. Unfortunately, she either does not perceive that beauty herself or just does a poor job of explaining it, since the things Leela discusses do not illustrate it well. Her first description of her research is the study of "changes in the employment of non-aligned wave frequencies from Monteverdi to Bach". Later, we hear about a project she is working on with her former thesis advisor concerning the physical structure of the instruments (e.g. the placement of the sound holes on a violin). In fact, there is a connection between music and mathematics. It is not quite a mainstream area of math research. In fact, I do not think that there are any mathematicians at a major research university (such as MIT where she supposedly works) whose main subject of research is music. Still, there is a brand new journal of math and music research.

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:

  • her claim that she uses her knowledge of the mathematics of sound to determine where she is when she is abducted
  • a comment from her former thesis advisor that it is rare to find a female mathematician of her calibre
  • Leela's "loss of faith" in mathematics during Mishka's disappearance and her advisor's assurance that such confusion is often the foundation for a break-through

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.

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Works Similar to Orpheus Lost: A Novel
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Continuums by Robert Carr
  2. Long Division by Michael Redhill
  3. Touch the Water, Touch the Wind by Amos Oz
  4. Echoes from the Past by Edward Michel-Bird
  5. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  6. Cliff Walk by Margaret Dickson
  7. The Arnold Proof by Jessica Francis Kane
  8. Herr Doctor's Wondrous Smile by Vladimir Tasic
  9. Stay Close, Little Ghost by Oliver Serang
  10. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
Ratings for Orpheus Lost: A Novel:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Academia, War, Female Mathematicians, Music, Romance, Math Education, Religion,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the 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)