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by Nova Jacobs
Touchstone, March 2018
337 pages
ISBN: 1501175122

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Nova Jacobs's THE LAST EQUATION OF ISAAC SEVERY is an engrossing introduction to the academic world of mathematicians, and also a smart mystery novel. She traverses, as some of the best mystery writers do (I'm thinking here of P.D. James's and Minette Walters' early novels, in particular), multiple genres—crime fiction, romantic suspense, and science thriller—in a narrative that is at once sprawling and absorbing. Despite a good number of generic and plot irons in the fire, Jacobs manages, for the most part, to maintain a pretty heated readerly engagement.

The key perspective is from book-store owner, Hazel Severy, the adopted grandchild of the dead-almost-from-the-start, Isaac Severy, a brilliant and lauded mathematician, who anticipates his own death and ensures that there's an extra place setting and boiled-egg breakfast for his would-be assassin. Days after his death, Hazel receives a letter from Isaac, giving her a set of directions and suggesting that she is responsible for ensuring that his final equation reaches the mathematician whom he has chosen to reveal it to the world at large; an equation that is supposedly focussed on anticipating traffic snarls but which increasingly seems to be about anticipating other fatalities. With some fairly limited effort, Hazel finds a cached hotel room and in it a map and computer, neither of which she can read or access. Despite her figuring out that her grandfather's clues must be understood through one of the novels on his bookshelf, Hazel is remarkably thick about following the clues Isaac has left her. Indeed, one wonders, at times, why she was chosen as the preferred person to find and hand over the equation. In the meantime, other family members, namely her brother, Gregory—now an LAPD cop, but formerly a foster child, with Hazel, of Isaac's junkie son, Tom—and Isaac's son, Philip, also an adept mathematician and professor, are given their own perspectives in the narrative. However, they mostly serve to reveal the unpretty history of the family and, in the present, to blunder away at new sexual interests, driven by old family pathologies and feuds; their role is, essentially, to provide tangentially the very information that Hazel can't seem to attain herself. The three perspectives converge for the reader, but never for the characters. There is, thankfully, no drawing-room conversation or debriefing on their part, for the three, quite realistically, barely communicate; and when they do, they are inarticulate about almost everything, spending most of their time together crying, drinking, glaring, staring out the window, or patting shoulders or kissing foreheads distractedly.

Jacobs does a wonderful job of capturing the dysfunction of the extended Severy family, highlighting the commonplaces of math nerds as unable to communicate, except through gorgeous equations, while also accentuating the mystification of outsiders, including non-brilliant family members, to the inner workings of the math mind. But these are, in the end, commonplaces, and, much as the novel gives mathematicians their due seriously, there's a Big Bang Theory lurking in the background—without a Sheldon Cooper. There's only a drastically unfunny Hazel Severy. And unfunny for all the dire reasons Jacobs works into her character—she's an abused foster child, now a bookstore owner going bankrupt and living in her shop, with a boyfriend who's a creep—who is not much of a detective. For all that, Hazel has some comic moments. And we're with her all the way. If Jacobs leaves us wanting more—and we do—then she's definitely done her job. And done very well indeed!

§ Nicola Nixon is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal.

Reviewed by Nicola Nixon, April 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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