"Milo Andret, the genius who solved the Malosz Conjecture and won the Fields Medal for mathematics, had an unusual, even eerie mind from birth, but not until he moves to Berkeley in the 1970s to pursue a ph.D. does he realize the extent of his singular talents. From the drug-soaked enclaves of beatnik California to the verdant lawns of Princeton University, from turbo-charged Wall Street to the quiet woods of Michigan, his reputation as one of the century's most brilliant thinkers forms the backbone of a sweeping, epic story about family, love, passion, and Milo's fraught relationship with his son. With magnificent prose and enormous storytelling magic, Ethan Canin gives us a suspenseful, original novel about the nature of genius, and a son's quest to understand the mystery of his father's life, and its legacy in his own"--
It's a book about family, but mostly about fathers and sons. Milo Andret, a mathematics savant - a genius, perhaps - grew up an only child in the woods of northern Michigan. His parents pretty much left him to his own devices and he had few friend, so his childhood was solitary. He lived inside his own head. His mathematical skills got him to grad school in Berkley where he was championed by another recognized genius. He won the prestigious Fields medal and got an endowed chair at Princeton. But then alcoholism, his own strangeness, and lack of social skills cause it all to fall apart. After a stint at a backwater Ohio college, he ends up back in the Michigan woods. But the book is not just about Milo. It's equally about his family, and particularly his son, Hans (who narrates the story), who inherits his father's mathematical skills, but is plagued by his own addictions and phantoms.
When I picked this book up, I hefted it and thought, this is gonna take me a week or two. Nope. I finished it in just three days. Because the characters in here are so real, so multi-dimensional, that I could not wait to see what they would do next. And yes, it's about fathers and sons. There was a particular line that stopped me cold. It was Hans remembering his father years later, and remarking on how incurious he was as a boy about his father.
"That kind of curiosity - a curiosity about the man beyond the effects he had on my life - wouldn't arrive for years."
I had to pause after reading this line, thinking of all the things I wish I had asked my own father about his life, things I wish I knew now, but never will. My father has been dead for more than twenty-five years now. Fortunately, Hans does get another chance to know his father better, and those scenes, near the end of the book, are some of the most emotionally charged of the whole story. In one of them, Milo admits, quite unapologetically, "For that matter, I wouldn't have said that you kids were a big part of my life ... That's just how it was in those days. I was working. That's what we did."
Indeed, what I remember most about my father was how he was always worrying about how he could improve his business, make more money, better support his growing family. (I was one of six children.) He never had much time to spend with us kids. He "was working." That's what he did.
I know these are just a couple lines out of a book nearly six hundred pages long, but they hit home. And there were plenty more passages like that all through the story that kept me turning those pages, identifying with and caring for these characters. Of course I was never a math genius, nor was anyone in my family, but that didn't matter. There is one climactic scene, a family crisis, in the chapter, "Thomson's Lamp," that caused me to gasp at its explosive and unexpected violence, as Hans and his sister both struggle to protect their mother from their father's sudden fury.
And in yet another scene, unexpectedly tender, a drugged and dying Milo, in his suffering, breathes out this line, which Hans's wife recognizes is from a poem - "They do not ... tax their lives ... with forethought of grief."
I found this to be a line from Wendell Berry's poem "The Peace of Wild Things." And it fits, because there is something wild about Milo Andret, this tortured and driven man who grew up nearly alone, in the woods behind his childhood home, and is trying to find his way back there. Here is the Berry poem in its entirety.
"When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."
Later, Hans says of his father, "I hope he went back to the woods. Back to the great leafy woods of his childhood, where he'd first known solace."
A DOUBTER'S ALMANAC is a tome to read and re-read, to treasure. Yes, it's a 'big' book, but I was sad to see it end. It is a wise and wonderful book about genius, family and the frailty of human life. It will make you think, and it may make you weep. I loved it. My very highest recommendation.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
Part One, narrated in third person introduces readers to Milo Andret, mathematician and Topology genius who accomplishes his best work in the woods of Cheboygan, Michigan. Milo immerses himself in nature and uses his intuition to construct from a Beech tree, a unique and flawless example of math principle, the Malosz Conjecture. As a result, Milo is discovered and noted as a brilliant mathematician (post high school) and is invited to UCLA. During his study, Milo explores the cognition expanding nature of hallucinogenics. Canin uses the opportunity of Milo’s drug-infused trips to immerse readers in visual and arithmetic explanations of people, places and things much akin to the images created by MC Escher. Readers experience the ill combination of the drug-induced too rational mind as it relates negatively to lovers, peers, mentors and family. An omnipresent theme is the enabling effect created by supporters and admirers of Milo the genius. The enabler’s experience however, is disclosed as it is bittersweet for those who suffer their sacrifices. Meanwhile, Milo climbs up the genius ladder to Princeton and it is there he falls off.
During Part Two of “A Doubter’s Almanac” a narrative shift occurs from third to first person point of view. As narrator, Hans Euyler Andret, son of Milo steps forward and shares the story of his father. In doing so, readers discover that like his father, Hans struggles with addiction and giftedness. Part Two toggles back and forth between Hans’ evolution and Milo’s decline. There are moments when their stories merge and clarity is not accessible for readers. During these chapters, man’s learning how to die is artfully detailed with a fine, fine-toothed comb. It is gut-wrenching how we go from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Note to the reader: breaks and walks are recommended for this part of the book. Gleaned from this part of the book is how remarkable we are as a species to know and be able to love. That love allows us to forgive and encourages us to forget regardless of rational extremes.
“A Doubter’s Almanac” was a gorgeous exemplification of the esoteric nature of math in all its expressions known and unknown to our ever expanding minds. However, it was too long and the movement of story was too disjointed. Canin develops and forgets his readers sometimes. We forgive him due to his beautiful prose. As a final note, his treatment of women reminds one of the insufficient representation of women in the world of math and genius. Canin portrays them as enablers, supporters and genderless librarain types. It is possible for women to extrapolate from their paternal excellence and exceed their efforts and Canin frugally suggest such. Still a good story and entirely worth my time. *Thanks to Netgalley for allowing me to read this book before the masses do! I hope they do!
Milo Andret, the mathematical genius in Ethan Canin's novel “A Doubter's Almanac” (2016), lives too long, at least as far as he is concerned. Not only did his genius burn out years before, but he is haunted by the fear that his greatest work, for which he was awarded math's most coveted prize, may contain an error. Now he lacks the ability to find out for sure, and the doubt gradually destroys him.
The lengthy novel covers virtually Milo's entire life, his rise, his fall and his family. His two children (especially his son) and his two grandchildren (especially his granddaughter) are also math wizards, a fact that petrifies their mothers. For genius does not make for an easy life.
Milo's life is certainly not easy, although that is mostly his own fault. He succumbs early to the lure of strong drink and other men's wives. His genius makes him proud, so arrogant that his colleagues despise him. Before long he is booted off the Princeton faculty and is lucky to find a job teaching math at an obscure Ohio college.
The second half of the novel is narrated by Milo's son, Hans, who uses his own genius to make millions on Wall Street, despite a serious drug addiction. Later, as his father's health declines, Hans goes to the Michigan cabin where Milo, like a hermit, has spent his last years. While nursing his father, he learns to love him.
If the book's first half is difficult to read, the reader like Milo's colleagues finding him too obnoxious to bear, the second half (for those who stick with it that long) makes the early anguish worthwhile, for Canin gives us some beautiful and inspiring prose.
Mathematics was fascinating.
I love Canin's writing style. His prose is spare, yet the work is still very emotional. The characterization of the male characters is superb; the women are a little sketchier, but better sketchy than false, I suppose. The plot has its share of interesting twists which I've avoided in my review, but the real story is about the nature of genius, the spirit of discovery, and how people know or don't know each other.