Reading guide for The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

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The Solitude of Prime Numbers

A Novel

by Paolo Giordano

The Solitude of Prime Numbers
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 288 pages
    Mar 2011, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

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About this Book

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About the Book

Divisible only by one and themselves, prime numbers stand in stark contrast to natural numbers, upending the orderly logic of mathematics. They are strange, solitary, and disruptive. Like prime numbers, Mattia and Alice are also oddities, united in their loneliness, adrift in the normal world. Unable to fi t in with anyone else, Alice and Mattia are kindred spirits, each bearing the burden of physical and psychological injuries from their childhood. Alice walks with a limp, the result of a skiing accident, and, painfully self-conscious of her body, nurses an eating disorder. Mattia's scars run deeper; devastated by the loss of his mentally handicapped twin sister and racked with guilt over his secret role in her disappearance, Mattia turns his emotional suffering into physical pain, deliberately cutting and burning himself. The relationship between these two damaged young people is the center of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano's brilliantly arresting debut novel.

Giordano's characters are provocative, even disturbing at times, and yet they have a fragility that evokes our sympathy. As Alice struggles to navigate the cruel and arbitrary rules of high school, she reaches out and retreats inward in equal measure, and when she is rebuked by her classmates, she turns to Mattia as her only friend. But while Alice is rejected by the world, Mattia, in turn, rejects the world itself, severing himself from any visible emotional contact with anyone else. He escapes into numbers, replacing the chaos of life with the peaceful structures of mathematics—and yet, even there, he finds Alice. Together they pass through adolescence into adulthood, and their private world expands to include a constellation of characters who love, desire, despise, and ignore them. Clinging together and yet never able to connect fully, Mattia and Alice are forced to question whether it's possible to unlock themselves from their painful pasts and overcome their deep loneliness by reaching out to each other. With artful precision, Giordano illustrates the bitter beauty of love and loss and how the two extremes are permanently intertwined. His novel is a brutally honest yet generous portrayal of two struggling souls. Mattia and Alice are neither good nor bad people, they are simply human, but they pay a deep price for the choices they make. Complex and compelling, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is an unsettling look at how the effects of a single moment can reverberate through a lifetime.

Discussion Questions
  1. What pleasure or power do Mattia and Alice get from harming their bodies? Think about the moments in the novel when these acts occur. Do you think they are in response to something and, if so, what?

  2. There is a brief moment at Viola's party where Alice and Mattia walk together and their respective scars seem to melt into one another and disappear. How? In what other ways are Mattia and Alice complementary?

  3. Examine the relationship between Alice and Viola. Based on Alice's feelings toward Viola and Viola's treatment of Alice, what do you think about Alice's actions when they meet later in life?

  4. What is it about adolescence that makes people so cruel? What was your own adolescence like? Did Mattia's and Alice's experience with their peers echo your own in any way?

  5. Where are the parents in this novel? What presence or power do they assert? Why?

  6. Was Mattia's action with his sister understandable? Was he aware of the possible consequences or not? Should children be held accountable when their actions have such severe consequences?

  7. One of Alice's few pleasures in life is photography, an art that consists of capturing a moment and presenting it according to one's own perspective. Why is this pursuit appropriate for Alice?

  8. Mattia believes that "feeling special is the worst kind of cage that a person can build." What do you think he means by this?

  9. Do you think Alice really sees Michela in the hospital or was she hallucinating? Why?

  10. Examine the last paragraph of the novel. What is being said here? What happens to Alice? What happens to Mattia?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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