15 February 2012

Books: Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby (2009)

Mead Fegley is a solitary 15-year-old prodigy who flees his oppressive, well-meaning family for the wilds of a prestigious university in Chicago. There he immediately places out of entry-level courses and immerses himself in higher mathematics, joining forces with an ancient, mysterious professor in an attempt to conquer the Riemann Hypothesis, a problem that has been baffling mathematicians since the mid-19th century. They fail, but in the process Mead begins to know his family and himself and to overcome the barriers that have separated him from others.

Structured like a thriller –it begins as Mead is fleeing his school in Chicago- we then are treated to tale that goes back in forth between the present and the past and what would eventually back to the reason why Mead left.  This might have been a good idea at first, this jumping backwards and then forwards, but it causes the story to run hot and cold at times.  Also Jacoby doesn’t date the book at first, and you sort of assume that it’s set somewhere in the late 1950’s –a lot of the talk, the ideals of growing up in small town America. But then she reveals the age of one professor –and a subplot involving the  Cray X-MP computer - and then you realize it’s set in the late 1980’s. 

But Mead Fegley is a fully realized character and you cannot help but like him, despite some of his social awkwardness. I’m assuming this first novel by the author is semi-autobiographical, but then we seem many times so called geniuses have difficulty dealing with everyday life. Plus, his mother seems like a stereotypical Asian mother pushing her only male child to brink of insanity by convincing him that all that is important in life is doing perfectly in school – nothing but A’s is good enough for her. Called the six-legged creature by Mead (for how she would sit on chair in his room and sort of judge him), she tries, I’m guessing, to be the good mother, but  she comes off as an ambitious, sad women whose life did not turn out the way she wanted, so she’s making her son pay for it. 

Not what I call a bad debut, Life After Genius, but a good read and a sort-of-hero to root for.

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