Art and math mingle in Grannec’s debut historical novel, which hinges on the life of logician Kurt Gödel.
In 1980, a Princeton student named Anna receives a difficult task: to befriend Gödel’s cantankerous widow, Adele, and convince her to donate her late husband’s papers to the university archives. Grannec alternates between this plotline and Adele’s narration of her life with the tortured Gödel, a genius whose quirks—reluctances to eat or leave his home or publish his work—eventually mutated into impairments. The boldness of Adele—a former dancer and, to many on the Princeton faculty, a philistine—contrasts with the reservation of Anna and Gödel in each of the respective timelines. For a while, this creates powerful thematic unity—especially in the early chapters, which focus on twin seductions: Adele’s of Gödel in late 1920s Vienna and Anna’s of Adele more than 50 years later. The novel’s middle stretch feels more diffuse, however, the intellectual material drifting away from the emotional material. It seems that Grannec has set out to write one of those sweeping literary works that balances the historical with the personal. As such, she gives us World War II, McCarthyism, the Kennedy assassination, etc., populating her narrative with guest appearances from the likes of Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. Yet her settings and characters feel like shadows—mere glimpses of history. While the female protagonists, Adele and Anna, are fascinating and three-dimensional, Grannec often makes them passive in both action and thought; the former is understandable, though the latter—especially during the novel’s long dinner parties, where dialogue takes over and interiority gets left behind—is questionable. Grannec never finds a convincing emotional counterweight to the dense mathematics and philosophy discussed throughout.
An intellectually challenging, though occasionally lopsided, deconstruction of the notion of “the great man.”