The certainty attributed to mathematics is richly contrasted to the uncertainty of human relationships in Leavitt’s unusual and absorbing eighth novel.
It’s based on the lives of historical figures, British mathematician G.H. Hardy, a Fellow of Cambridge University’s Trinity College, and the unschooled mathematical “genius” who in 1913 writes Hardy an importunate letter, identifying himself as an obscure accounts clerk in Madras, India. Inferring from its content that the letter writer, Srinivasa Ramanujan, may be on the way to proving “the Riemann Hypothesis” (a paradoxical theory regarding the integrity and interrelatedness of prime numbers), Hardy arranges to bring Ramanujan to Cambridge, and thereafter becomes de facto mentor to the withdrawn, barely sociable young immigrant—a devout Brahmin. In a parallel narrative emerging from lectures that Hardy composes and delivers at Harvard University in 1936, the entire span of his spartan, lonely life (as a long-inexperienced homosexual) is revealed in the contexts of his relationships. The novel, which may remind readers of Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George, perhaps bites off more than it can chew. But it’s impressively researched, insistently readable and keenly sensitive to the ordeal of World War I and the fears of a nation and a culture aware that all that humans have achieved may be blithely obliterated.
Not a perfect novel, but easily Leavitt’s (The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and The Invention of The Computer, 2006, etc.) best—and a heartening indication that this uneven writer has reached a new level of artistic maturity.