The Mathematician's Shiva

Penguin Books  2014

 

This wonderfully quirky novel celebrates the life of a famous, fictional mathematician, Rachela Karnokovitch. She is a Polish émigré to Madison, Wisconsin, a professor who is rumored to have solved the million-dollar Navier-Stokes Millenium Prize problem, and to have taken the solution to her grave.

When her son Sasha, who narrates the novel, sits shiva with his father, uncle, and cousin, surpris­ing things happen. Hordes of mathematician friends and enemies of Rachela come to pay their respects. Though some are genuinely bereaved, others are hoping to find any hint of the solution to the million-dollar problem. Sasha’s long-lost daughter from a short-lived marriage shows up at the shiva as well, bringing her own daughter, a granddaughter Sasha knew nothing about. Although Sasha and his father are both published researchers in their own right, their accomplish­ments pale in comparison with Rachela’s and they are proud and protective of her legacy. Sasha’s account of his mother’s funeral and shiva, while dealing with his new-found progeny and the crowd that descends on his home, is interspersed with chapters from Rachela’s memoirs, A Lifetime in Mathematics, which describes the incredible hardships of her life in Poland, her strong deter­mination to survive, the benefits of skiing in icy cold weather, and the cutthroat competitiveness among mathematicians. This bittersweet novel, which depicts family loyalty and the love between a mother and son, is reminiscent of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You in its humorous descriptions of human relationships, eccentricities, and challenges.

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