Monday, April 18, 2016

The Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

I was up, down and all around reading The Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin. Milo Andret is the genius mathematician/topologist at the heart of the novel. He is a man who hurts, ignores and confuses most everyone, including his wife, son and daughter. Milo's greatest achievement, as far as I was concerned, was carving a large chain out of a single piece of wood when he was a boy most at home in his native Michigan woods. Later he wins a prestigious mathematics prize, but it does not bring him happiness. Professor Milo becomes very much an alcoholic and is thrown out of Princeton. To me, it seemed he presented many characteristics of what is now called Asperger's Syndrome. Also, his forays with LSD during college seem to have lifelong hallucinatory effects.

Thank goodness about halfway through the book, the point of view changes to that of Milo's son, Hans Andret. Hans has much mathematical ability as well, and I had high hopes he would not crash and burn like his father. Let me just say he eventually does better. But as a teenager and during some part of his adulthood, he becomes very much a drug abuser , though he eventually seeks rehabilitation. Hans is a much better father than Milo ever was, and the scenes with his children really come alive.

I appreciated the wives of these two men, but found I wanted to know them better than Canin allowed. Their inborn kindness and nurturing ways often save the day. Least developed is Paulie, Milo's daughter. By book's end, I did see a bit more into Milo's soul. And ultimately Hans won my respect. At times the book was a bit repetitive, especially concerning Milo's brutish patterns exacerbated by alcoholism. I am amazed I was able to stay with a novel concerning so much higher math, since I am totally lacking in aptitude or interest in the subject, but Canin's writing is so accomplished, I could not give up on the Andret geniuses despite their mathematical follies and fancies. Genius in any form is always fascinating to me. Yes, I wanted to ditch the book some of the time, but I persevered and found my way to its last scene, a moving one that brought the story to its natural end.