a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Rough Strife (1980)
Lynne Sharon Schwartz

This is the story of the courtship, marriage and affairs of Ivan (who works on the business side of the art world) and Caroline (a math professor).

Although there are plenty of clues to the knowledgeable reader that Schwartz is not an expert on mathematics, she does quite a good job of writing about a math professor. Caroline is a knot theorist, and a few terms of knot theory are tossed around casually and correctly (e.g. she searches for "knot ivariants" and studies "knotted spheres in four-space"). We hear a bit about teaching introductory calculus, meeting with graduate students, collaborations (he is described as having "flights of algebraic genius" while hers are "geometric") and conferences. For the most part, the mathematics does not add much to it, but unlike many works of mathematical fiction written by authors who do not know the mathematical community, it is done well enough that it did not detract from my enjoyment of the book either.

Perhaps my favorite mathematical moment is when a topological metaphor is used to justify (in Caroline's mind) her extra-marital affairs:

(quoted from Rough Strife)

In topology, spaces might be infinitely twisted, tugged and pushed, provided that no shapes were snapped in two, or poked with holes, or forced inside out. That was the contract the mathematician accepted. She trusted Ivan would accept the same: no irreparable wounds. The underside of the marriage contract, in invisible ink.

This is the one case in which I found a true synergy between the literature and the math. Otherwise, the math just sits there nicely as the story progresses.

Much is made of the fact that Caroline was "one of the few women in a man's field". For instance, that she is able to get a job at a small, unnamed college in the middle of nowhere is ascribed to "her notoriety as a female researcher". Today, these descriptions of a sexist mathematical community seem harsh. But, it may well be that in 1980 when the book was written this was an accurate description of the environment.

Of course, I have spent all of this time discussing the mathematical aspects of the book when it is really about human relationships: how husbands and wives get along and how they don't, how children affect their relationship, what keeps them together and what drives them apart. This is, of course, the main focus of most of the reviews of this book, so I will only refer you to those and add that this book deserves the critical success that it enjoyed.

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Works Similar to Rough Strife
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Continuums by Robert Carr
  2. Of Mystery There Is No End by Leonard Michaels
  3. Kavita Through Glass by Emily Ishem Raboteau
  4. The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri by David Bajo
  5. The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] by Paolo Giordano
  6. Belonging to Karovsky by Kathryn Schwille
  7. The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein
  8. Villages by John Updike
  9. When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
  10. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
Ratings for Rough Strife:
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)

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)