Monday, April 18, 2016
Book Review: "A Doubter's Almanac" by Ethan Canin
Growing up in the 1950s in northern Michigan, Milo Andret lived a somewhat solitary existence. His parents kept to themselves and expected him to mostly do the same, and it didn't seem to faze him all that much that he didn't have much success making friends.
"He felt affection for his parents, and he understood that they felt affection for him. But the three of them hardly questioned one another, and they almost never revealed to one another anything of importance."
Milo knows he has talent, however, first demonstrated by his prowess in woodworking, and then when he attends graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, he realizes his genius in mathematics stands him head and shoulders above his peers. But for someone who has always tried to blend into the background and not be noticed, his intelligence is finally something for which he strives to be recognized, and he doesn't care if people are jealous or offended by his treatment of them.
While at Berkeley he meets an alluring young woman who bewitches him, and he meets the man who will be his rival, both intellectually and romantically. Under the tutelage of his faculty adviser, Milo is challenged, bullied, and cajoled into defining the course of his dissertation, one that will once and for all demonstrate his superiority. But even when he makes this career-shaping discovery, it's not enough for him, and it sets his life on a constant struggle for fulfillment, satisfaction, and the need to prove and re-prove his intellectual prowess. It's debilitating, physically dangerous, and has harmful effects on those around him.
A Doubter's Almanac follows Milo's life into old age, his cantankerous and self-destructive nature never waning, even as it hurts those closest to him. It also follows the struggles of Milo's wife and children, particularly his son Hans, who seems destined to follow in his father's footsteps even if it's his sister who is the smarter one, and Hans' own appetite for self-destruction. The book examines whether we have any power to set our own course in life, or whether it is predetermined for us.
I've been a big fan of Ethan Canin's for a really long time, and I just love the way he tells a story. That being said, I didn't warm to A Doubter's Almanac as much as I hoped I would. The book got really technical and in-depth with regard to mathematical principles and equations, and given that I barely skated through the minimum number of math classes I had to take in high school and college, I couldn't get into those sections. And after a while, I realized that the emotional distance that Canin created for his characters kept me at arm's length, making it difficult to become fully invested.
Parts of this book are moving, and nearly all of it is spectacularly written, but I felt a little detached from the plot and the characters. Still, it is always a treat to read something written by Ethan Canin, and if you're not physically allergic to math, you might really enjoy this.
NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!