Summary and book reviews of A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

A Doubter's Almanac

by Ethan Canin

A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2016, 592 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Book Summary

In this mesmerizing novel, Ethan Canin, the New York Times bestselling author of America America and other acclaimed works of fiction, explores the nature of genius, jealousy, ambition, and love in several generations of a gifted family.

Milo Andret is born with an unusual mind. A lonely child growing up in the woods of northern Michigan in the 1950s, Milo gives little thought to his talent, and not until his acceptance at U.C. Berkeley does he realize the extent, and the risks, of his singular gifts. California in the seventies is an initiation and a seduction, opening Milo's eyes to the allure of both ambition and indulgence. The research he begins there will make him a legend; the woman, and the rival, he meets there will haunt him always. For Milo's brilliance is inextricably linked to a dark side that ultimately threatens to unravel his work, his son and daughter, and his life.

Moving from California to Princeton to the Midwest and to New York, A Doubter's Almanac explores Milo's complex legacy for the next generations in his family. Spanning several decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, A Doubter's Almanac is a suspenseful, surprising, and deeply moving novel, written in stunning prose and with superb storytelling magic.

Even at a young age, Milo understood that he was in large part a replica of his father, this solitary, middle-aged man who shared their house with them but who appeared to will himself away from anyone even when he was at home. When Mr. Andret wasn't grading schoolwork, he was walking unceasingly through his dominion, mending all sorts of breakage and deterioration that were apparent only to him.

Like his father, Milo himself learned at a young age to carve wood. Very fine objects, in fact. But also like his father, he never showed anyone what he'd made. He whittled ornate whistles that he rarely blew, detailed animal figurines that he abandoned in the undergrowth, and intricate talismans of celestial design, which he hid in the dimples of maple burls or inside the crevices of the twisted roots that emerged from the forest's peat like tangles of surfacing snakes. For his finer work, he used a magnifying glass.

One day while whittling a whistle from a tiny piece of tamarack, ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

What sets Canin’s story apart from other dysfunctional family novels is the awesome writing, the mid-plot switch of narrator augmented by the juxtaposition of Milo’s superhuman intelligence and his addiction. It is indicative of Canin’s own genius that he makes all that – plus mathematics references that sent me to Google more than once – work superbly.   (Reviewed by Donna Chavez).

Full Review (638 words).

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Media Reviews

Vogue

Canin’s hugely anticipated tale of male genius and its destructive power is a fine-grained portrait of a troubled mathematician and the emotional footprint he leaves behind.

The Washington Post

Ethan Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension.

The Washington Post

Ethan Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension.

Slate

[Canin] is at the top of his form, fluent, immersive, confident. You might not know where he’s taking you, but the characters are so vivid, Hans’s voice rendered so precisely, that it’s impossible not to trust in the story... The delicate networks of emotion and connection that make up a family are illuminated, as if by magic, via his prose.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Though the book is occasionally repetitive, Canin's accomplishments are many, not least of which is his ability to lucidly explain the field of algebraic topology. But it is his superb storytelling that makes this novel a tremendous literary achievement.

Booklist

Starred Review. Epic...thoroughly absorbing...a nuanced, heartbreaking portrait of a tortured mathematician...Canin, in translucent prose, elucidates the way a mathematician sees the world and humanity's own insignificance within it. A harrowing, poignant read about the blessing and curse of genius.

Author Blurb Pat Conroy, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini
This is the story of a family that falls to pieces under the pressure of living with an abundantly gifted tyrant. Ethan Canin writes about mathematics as brilliantly as T. S. Eliot writes about poetry. With this extraordinary novel, Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.

Reader Reviews

Bob Barton

It isn't really about mathematics
Ethan Canin's work of grace uses a usually dry and difficult subject and takes the reader elsewhere. The story of a father and son, more alike than either would care to admit, is beautifully rendered.

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Beyond the Book

The Challenges of Genius

In A Doubter's Almanac, Hans Andret, a mathematical genius, checks into a rehab facility, seeking treatment for his addiction. In a counseling session, his therapist, Matthew, asks Hans why he suddenly brought his addiction out in the open and suggests that Hans wished to be caught.

Cesare LombrosoWhen Hans protests that such a notion would be ludicrous, Matthew says: "Genius is a degenerative psychosis…belonging to the group of moral insanity." He then explains this is a quote from: "Cesare Lombroso. A criminologist. He died a hundred years ago, but now psychologists are starting to agree with him. Fewer dopamine receptors or something like that. Psychosis and inventiveness seem to run along a kind of continuum."

Indeed, Lombroso did write ...

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