My take on this book is that it’s a good read but is sometimes difficult to pick up on a daily basis, because the hero, or really two heroes, although highly intelligent, keep doing really stupid stuff that the average person would have better sense than to do, but clearly we are not dealing with average people here. In a big way this is a father and son story, the father, Milo Andret, we find out soon enough, is a mathematical genius. He is able to understand complex mathematical concepts as a teenager and breezes through mathematics at college. He then spends a few years working at a service station but in his late twenties ends up interviewing at Berkeley for a position in the mathematics department with his mentor, Dr. Hans Borland, who believes him to be an exceptional young man, capable of solving math problems that only a handful of people on the planet can even begin to understand. This proves to be true, but there is another side to Milo, a much darker side. He does end up at Berkeley and while there he meets the love of his life, Cle (Cleopatra) Wells, but although she admires Andret, their relationship is difficult partly because of her parallel attachment to Earl Biettermann, another math student who is not gifted the way Milo is. Cle and Earl are into a very open lifestyle with plenty of drugs, booze and loose morals for everyone. Milo is drawn into this world but essentially remains a loner.
Part One of the story is told by Milo’s son, Hans, which he admits to at the beginning of Part Two. We are enlightened to the fact that Hans has been the narrator of his father’s story up to this point, based on what Milo has told him in his later years. Now changing to first person, Hans begins weaving his own and his sister’s story along with that of his mother, not the Cle that Milo fell in love with at Berkeley, but a secretary at the math department, Helena, who seems like a good, decent person, a far cry from Cle, whose beauty and sophistication put her in a realm outside Milo’s reach. During the first part of the novel we see Milo attempt to solve the Malosz problem and during this time he achieves remarkable things, landing at Princeton in a prestigious chair, all the while drinking heavily and carrying on affairs with two of his colleague’s wives. He is at the pinnacle of his career when he is caught in bed with another professor’s wife and things quickly go from bad to worse. In the second half of the book Milo has lost almost everything, taking a college professorship at a small college having married Helena and now raising their two children. Berkeley, Princeton and international fame seem a distant memory.
Although I can’t pretend to know if the math problems and scenarios are accurate I am assuming that someone with more knowledge of these issues would find them so, and interesting as well. The human story of how this man, Milo Andret, copes with his genius seems enlightening to me. And from what I know of the mathematically gifted, the plot does not seem far fetched but sheds light on the seemingly bizarre behavior of the characters. While the term Asperger’s is not used in the book since it was not recognized until later, the main character could be classified as close to the spectrum. If you’ve read The Rosie Project you may recognize this type, although A Doubter’s Almanac is considerably more complex reading.
I kept hoping throughout the book that Milo would see the light, give up the drinking and start work again in earnest. In the end the book is a bit depressing. However, it’s a good read and worth the effort, well written and engaging. The many stops along the way tell a story of a family struggling through addiction and adversity.
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