A celebrated mathematician leaves a legacy of inexactitude to his confused progeny.
Isaac Severy, the elderly patriarch of a numerically gifted clan, predicts his own demise and awaits his executioner one morning in his Hollywood Hills backyard. After his death, his granddaughter Hazel receives a letter from him containing clues to the equation that is his life’s masterwork and also a prediction: “Three will die. I am the first.” Only Hazel and, as will be revealed later, her brother, Gregory, have been selected by Isaac to fulfill his mathematical designs, although they are not blood relations but foster children taken in by Isaac's black-sheep son, Tom, and adopted by Isaac after Tom’s imprisonment. Hazel is a failed Seattle bookseller, Gregory a not particularly diligent LAPD detective. These two nonmathematical Severys take turns with their uncle Philip, Isaac’s son, a particle physicist whose academic career has stalled, having chapters told from their perspectives. Romantic yearnings, of the illicit and/or near-incestuous variety, afflict all three. Several vividly sketched minor players vie for access to Isaac’s secret, not least his reclusive daughter, Paige, a probability theorist, and her son, Alex, an aspiring international man of mystery. Strangers are also circling. P. Booth Lyons, allegedly a government agent, has sent his persistent secretary, Nellie Stone, to stalk Philip around the campus of Caltech. A strange professor wants Hazel to meet him at the La Brea Tar Pits. The path to Isaac’s equation meanders through a hotel room numbered 137, a stubbornly password-protected computer, and a map of Los Angeles dotted with stickers noting dates and times. The second to die validates Isaac’s dire prophecy, lending urgency to the quest to decipher the stickers. In lovely, inventive prose, Jacobs re-engineers the tropes of family drama to explore age-old conundrums of destiny versus self-determination. However, the sheer number of characters and gambits threatens to overwhelm such a relatively short novel, as does the magnitude of its ambition.
The eloquence of the language transcends—and almost redeems—the plot’s gimmickry in this remarkable debut.