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by Helen DeWitt

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-7868-6668-3
Publisher: Hyperion

In a witty, wacky, and endlessly erudite debut, DeWitt assembles everything from letters of the Greek alphabet to Fourier analysis to tell the tale of a boy prodigy, stuffed with knowledge beyond his years but frustrated by his mother’s refusal to identify his father.

Sibylla and five-year-old Ludovic are quite a pair, riding round and round on the Circle Line in London’s Underground while he reads the Odyssey in the original and she copes with the inevitable remarks by fellow passengers. Sibylla, an expatriate American making a living as a typist, herself possesses formidable intelligence, but her eccentricities are just as noteworthy. Believing Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to be a film without peer, she watches it day after day, year after year, while in the one-night stand with Ludo’s father-to-be, she wound up in bed with him for no better reason than it wouldn’t have been polite not to, although subsequently she has nothing but scorn for his utterly conventional (if successful) travel books. Ludo she keeps in the dark about his patrimony, feeding him instead new languages at the rate of one or two a year, and, when an effort to put him in school with others his age wreaks havoc on the class, she resumes responsibility for his education, which, not surprisingly, relies heavily on Kurosawa’s film. As Ludo grows up, however, he will not be denied knowledge of his father, and sniffs him out—only to be as disappointed with him as his mother is. Hopes of happiness with the genuine article having been dashed, Ludo moves on to ideal candidates, and approaches a succession of geniuses, each time with a claim of being the man’s son. While these efforts are enlightening, they are also futile—and in one case tragic—until Ludo finds his match in one who knows the dialogue of Seven Samurai almost as well as he does.

Unabashedly over the top at times but, still, a saga that gives rise to as much amusement as it does sober reflection. A promising start, indeed.