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The Capacity for Infinite Happiness (2015)
Alexis von Konigslow

A math grad student trying to start her thesis on graph theory discovers some of her family's secrets when visiting their resort in Canada.

Graph theory involves the study of vertices (points or dots) connected by lines or arrows. There are many combinatorial and topological problems that arise in graph theory that are interesting, difficult or important. As is noted in the book, these results can be applied to questions involving computer networks or social networks. In the book, the grad student is supposedly trying to apply it to the influences that people in a family have upon each other.

The author has an undergraduate degree in math and physics, and so it is not surprising that the basic idea makes sense. However, even the character in the book realizes that the questions that interest her (and are the main focus of the book) are not mathematical in nature. Mathematical terms show up every once in a while, innocently so as not to cause any trouble to readers without a background in graph theory. For instance, questions of whether the graph is connected and whether the edges should be directional fit easily into this work of fiction. On the other hand, some mistakes of terminology that may only be caught by "experts" did briefly get in the way of my enjoyment of the book. She twice mistakenly calls topology "topography" and has a very strange idea of what it is like to be working on a PhD thesis in math that manifests itself in the words she chooses to use throughout the book. (Your PhD advisor is not your "boss", grad students aren't "fired" and you don't begin four years of work by writing your thesis...the writing of the thesis comes at the end.)

The great things about this book are the family secret and the way it is slowly revealed, the interpersonal relationships, the aura of Jewishness that pervades it, and the inclusion of the Marx Brothers (not their on-screen personas, but the actual brothers who looked so much alike that they had to wear disguises in their act so that audiences could tell them apart) as characters. That one character was a math grad student unsuccessfully struggling with a problem in graph theory was tangential to all of that, but helps in two ways: by focusing the reader's attention on those interpersonal relationships and by making it clear that there is a mystery about them which requires research to unravel.

I usually start thinking of what I will say in these summaries as I'm reading a work of fiction, and about halfway through this one I thought I was going to describe it as "magic realism" (but in Canada rather than Latin America). However, in the end it seems that nothing supernatural has actually taken place and the "magic" feeling is just part of the atmosphere von Konigslow creates.

Unfortunately, the author does not quite capture the humor style of the Marx Brothers (even in the scenes where they are joking around amongst themselves), but this book has a style of humor all its own, even as it addresses some tragic incidents. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in reading about a family, especially a Jewish family, in which the story is enhanced by the inclusion of just a little bit of mathematics.

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Works Similar to The Capacity for Infinite Happiness
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
  2. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  3. The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
  4. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  6. Continuums by Robert Carr
  7. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
  8. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
  9. The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall
  10. The Invention of Ana [Forestillinger om Ana Ivan] by Mikkel Rosengaard
Ratings for The Capacity for Infinite Happiness:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifAcademia, Female Mathematicians, Romance,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)