Brilliant teen struggles to come to terms with his intellect, both a gift and a curse.
Jacoby’s debut novel about a mathematical savant is fitfully funny and sometimes heart-rending, but it’s also disjointed in a way that suggests her storytelling skills have not yet caught up with her creative impulses. Arriving home in High Grove, Ill., just days before he is slated to graduate from a Chicago university, Theodore Mead Fegley has shut down emotionally. “I haven’t broken any laws or done anything wrong. Beyond that, I have nothing to tell,” he warns. In flashbacks to Mead’s tween years, the author depicts a preternaturally gifted student with a close relationship to his cousin Percy. Mead’s unique view of the world is well captured in Jacoby’s expressive prose, and in the protagonist’s biting jokes about his failure to live up to the expectations thrust upon him. Constantly confronted with his proffered role as the town genius, Mead scoffs: “Ex-genius,” he says. “I converted back to Catholicism a month ago.” This institutional tragedy has a darker side, as the author reveals Mead’s powerful and sinister hallucinations. The most potent of them, an insatiable “six-legged creature,” has haunted him since seventh grade. At university, he faces new challenges, including his adolescent hormones and academic politics among his eccentric professors. He also grapples with a potent rival: Herman Weinstein, a well-connected and diabolical fellow student determined to undermine Mead’s efforts to prove a 150-year-old algebraic conundrum called the Riemann Hypothesis. Jacoby provides some propulsive moments, such as Mead and Herman’s ill-advised trip to hijack a Cray supercomputer. Regrettably, they’re matched by overlong, derivative subplots about Mead’s oddball family, and the hero’s fractured sense of self eventually damages the narrative cohesion.
An admirable but flawed effort.