Title: The Mathematician’s Shiva
Author: Stuart Rojstaczer
Publisher: Penguin Books
Setting: Madison, WI, USA
Source: Purchased for my own reading pleasure.
Publication Date: Sept 2014
Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha’s chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution — even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela’s notes.
Written by a Ph.D. geophysicist, this hilarious and multi-layered debut novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity’s drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible.
I have to start off by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I had no idea what to expect going into it, but after the first few pages, I was hooked.
This novel is poignant and funny and even ruthless in its honesty at times. It’s told from the viewpoint of Sasha, the son of Rachela who is a famous mathematician. Before this book, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as famous mathematicians. When Rachela passes, mathematicians descend upon Sasha’s family en force to sit shiva with them. In actuality, they’re there to find the solution to the Navier-Stokes problem, thinking that Rachela had solved it and hidden the solution somewhere in her house or office.
It turns out that mathematicians, while brilliant and intimidating in their brilliance, have little to no social skills. They figure that finding this solution is more important than giving the family peace and privacy to grieve. In their social ineptitude, they’re a funny bunch. This element of comedy keeps the novel from being too heavy. Added to the mathematicians are Sasha’s family, who are old school Slavics and Jews and eccentric in their own ways. It was fun getting to know this entertaining cast of characters.
This book, with Sasha “speaking” to the reader on occasion, really makes you think and feel like this is a true story. I had to stop myself several times from Googling something or a name that I read in the book. Stuart Rojstaczer is that good of a storyteller. Aside from being a smarty pants himself with a Ph.D. in geophysics, he’s an exceptionally talented writer. I highly recommend this book to all readers.