THE BLOG

Book Review: Math, Judaism, Family, Genius, Mourning, America, Russia -- A Heady Brew

03/19/2015 08:56 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

The Mathematician's Shiva
A Novel by Stuart Rojstaczer
Penguin Books, 365 pages , $16.00

The mathematician in the title of this intriguing debut novel is Rachela Karonovitch, known as possibly the greatest woman math genius in history. As the book begins, she is on her last day of her life, dying of cancer in a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. Her son, Sasha, together with her husband and brother, rush to her bedside to bid farewell.

There follows an unusual and touching deathbed scene, effortlessly combining laughter and tears. Rachela, stoical and at peace, drinks a final shot of vodka with her loved ones, exchanges jokes and stories and asks a Catholic priest to remove the crucifix hanging behind her bed so that she does not have to die in the shadow of "Yozl Pandrik." Deeply offended, he nonetheless bows to her formidable will and complies. Then, she quietly fades away.

As news spreads of her passing, a horde of mathematicians, many of them Russian or Polish Jews, descends on Madison to pay tribute to their dead colleague - but also to rustle through her effects. For it is rumored that Rachela solved the famed "Navier-Stokes Equation" - one of the great unanswered conundrums in her field - and then concealed the solution somewhere in her home or office. This jealous, querulous, self-absorbed tribe of brainiacs is ready to pry up the floorboards if necessary to find the answer they seek. Even the squawks of Rachela's parrot are analyzed for possible clues to the missing solution.

Sasha, who narrates the novel, is a failed husband and father who has become an atmospheric scientist (the author for many years was a professor of geophysics at Duke University), opting to investigate the wild unpredictability of hurricanes. He is also, he tells us, a "praying atheist" who seeks in ritual "a sense that I shouldn't be singled out for my human failures, or my attempts, however pathetic, to rid myself of them." Sasha regards himself as a bit of a disappointment because he lacked the aptitude or the will to devote himself to pure mathematics. But it turns out that the son has unexpectedly inspired his mother and that turbulence and randomness are at the center both of the mysterious equation and the author's view of life itself. By the end of the shiva, some of that turbulence has subsided. Rachela's final gift to her son is a measure of calm and balance that he so badly lacked, without even realizing how much he lacked it.

Most of the book consists of a day by day account of the shiva interspersed with flashbacks of Rachela's life and frequent digressions to discuss science, the Russian soul, the drawbacks of American society, cross-country skiing and many other subjects. Like all shivas, there is time to both cry and laugh and the overall effect is profoundly healing.

Rachela's genius, we learn, first became apparent at the age of 11 when she and her father were almost starving to death in a Soviet Gulag camp in Siberia. Hardship and deprivation sharpened her senses and opened her mind. The brain, we're told, works best when the body is cold. And yet Sasha has ensconced himself in a university post in Alabama - a good place for football perhaps but not for intellectual exploration.

American comfort and affluence, the author proposes, have dulled the minds of its citizens and scientists who have to labor in a society where being too brainy is actually seen as a flaw and science is distrusted. "All this money, all this opportunity, and only stupid, lazy Americans to compete against. It's heaven on earth," one of the Russian mathematicians says.

Rachela, we learn, was a tough nut. She ruthlessly abandoned her husband and son in the Soviet Union when the chance came to defect, leaving them to figure out a way to rejoin her years later. She also speaks bitterly of the gender bias that deprived her of a coveted prize that ought to have been hers. Her revenge on the math establishment is to hint that she has solved the great equation - and then withhold the solution.

This is one of those novels driven mainly by ideas - and it is chock full of them. The downside is that the ideas often overwhelm the people. Rachela is a wonderful creation but the narrator comes across a bit colorless while some of the minor characters are mostly caricatures, identified through their quirks and played for laughs. The shtick is sometimes laid on a bit thick. Nonetheless, there is a lot to chew on - about life, the nature of genius and creativity and above all the sincere love that holds Rachela and her family together even after her death.