Ethan Canin — A Doubter’s Almanac

If you are looking for a happy or loving novel, this is not the one. Milo Andret, the central character of this book, is an egocentric, offensive, mathematical genius and also an addict. But the writing is excellent, the story is gripping, and even the unlikable protagonist is intriguing.

The book skips backward and forward between times and places, yet somehow that’s not confusing. Part one is from Milo’s point of view (third person), and part two is his son Hans (first person). The fractured relationship between father and son (also a brilliant mathematician) weaves through the fabric of the tale.

The story is filled with fascinating characters and locations, but mostly it’s an account of the workings of the mind. It’s somewhat esoteric and at times philosophical, leaving the reader (at least this one) with unanswered questions. Are mental illness and genius related? Addiction and genius? Is the addiction genetic? How much of intelligence is inherited and how much is learned? And more…

But I do understand the mathematical mind better than when I began reading. At some point while reading, I had an epiphany—insight into the mind of my brother who was a mathematical genius and an addict. That could be the reason I found the book so interesting. I also have a few friends who are brilliant in their fields. Most are a bit whacko (or a lot). But aren’t we all somewhat weird from another’s point of view? Maybe the whole idea of mental illness is skewed. Could it be that we just don’t understand minds that are so different from our own?

I seldom reread a book. But this one will probably end up by my bedside to be read again.