12 June 2014

Goddess of Small Victories

The Goddess of Small VictoriesThe Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A novel with two parallel storylines ought to be in a state of dynamic equilibrium, with forces from both narratives balancing and advancing each other. The Goddess of Small Victories does not achieve that balance. Adele Gödel, the goddess, relates the small victories,the daily balancing acts she performed to keep her frail, unstable husband from collapsing under the weight of his genius, eccentricities, and paranoia. Her husband, Kurt Gödel, was the mathematician whose Incompleteness Theorums revolutionized higher mathematics by proving that axioms within a closed system cannot be proven from within that system. She found that to be true in her life, as well, since she was excluded from the processes and debates that Gödel and his circle debated endlessly, without much reference to the mundane world without.

She relates these stories in flashbacks, as she lies dying in a nursing home, to Ann Roth, an archivist at the Institute for Advanced Study, whose director tasks her with acquiring Godel's papers. Anna is not a stranger to the IAS, having been raised nearby in an atmosphere that rewarded the type of excellence it represented, and left her feeling unnecessary when she did not reach its level.

In alternating chapters, the women share stories from their lives - Adele's price for considering Anna's request. Adele talks about being a dancer in Vienna who marries the almost-unknowable Kurt. His lifestyle demands are specific and constricting; they are the matrix he requires to survive. Their lives are turned to chaos by the beginnings of World War II. Before they can escape Austria, they endure a terrifying encounter with Hitler's street thugs, who bully Kurt and equate mathematicians with Jewishness. A grueling trip across Siberia and the Pacific lands them in the United States, and, eventually, at Princeton. This is a fit destination for Gödel. Not so, initially, for Adele, whose English is weak and whose life is ruled by Kurt's demands.

Some of Adele's small victories are the bits of respect from her husband's genius friends, including Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. They become regulars at the Gödel house, where they discuss mathematics, physics, politics, and metaphysics while praising her cooking. Decades later, Adele has learned enough to repeat and discuss some of the concepts with Anna, as if to prove her own worth after many years of having been nearly invisible in her husband's world.

Anna's story? Almost irrelevant. She, too, is a handmaiden to the geniuses of the Institute. The details are not particularly compelling until she begins to take some chances, goaded by the still-vibrant Adele.

The weakness of Anna's story is compounded by the portions of Adele's that read like extended Cliff's notes for concepts that range from Gaussian curves, quantum mechanics versus Newtonian physics, set theory, variable infinities, and amicable numbers. The metaphysics delve into whether the existence of God can be proven through mathematics. Even a slightly-knowledgeable admirer of these subjects will lose the narrative thread while reading fictional discussions that alternate between the paradoxes inherent in time travel, and the excellence of Adele's cooking.

The book includes copious footnotes, afternotes, and a thorough dissection of what (and who) is fictional in the book. Students of these subjects may find them useful. I found it disturbing that the author takes the position that came to believe in God, since one of his last lettters disproves it. The book was, overall, disappointing. Two stars for interesting me enough to read up on amicable numbers.

I received an ARC from NetGalley. This is a fair review.

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