The Filo Rosso in Paolo Giordano’s Novels

Anne Milano Appel on Paolo Giordano

Paolo Giordano has produced three books since he skyrocketed to fame with his prizewinning debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Following its publication in Italy, the book became an international bestseller, catapulting the young Italian writer into the literary spotlight. Originally trained as a theoretical physicist, Giordano is the youngest writer to have been awarded Italy’s prestigious Premio Strega. His first book is said to have sold more than a million copies worldwide and has been translated into thirty languages.

His touching debut novel, Solitude, focuses on two damaged individuals, Alice and Mattia, each of whom endured childhood traumas from which they are unable to fully recover. Despite their commonality, their friendship remains on tenuous ground, and the scarred pair are left in painful solitude as the trajectory of their lives ebbs and flows, carrying them together, then apart. Booklist described the book as “an intimate psychological portrait of two ‘prime numbers’—together alone and alone together.”

A number of years went by between Solitude and Giordano’s second novel, The Human Body, which appeared in English translation in 2014. During that time, Giordano searched for a direction that would lead him to his next work. After what may have been a false start or two, he found an avenue in the tours he made as an embedded journalist with an Italian company in Afghanistan, in December 2010 and December 2011. In one of his interviews, Giordano described being with the soldiers as a transformative experience: “I witnessed a place of real privation, but one where everyone was extremely humane and spontaneous. Talking with those soldiers made me think about how much more ‘naked’ they were with respect to the civil social context from which they came.” The result of this experience was The Human Body, which critics hailed as a portrayal of “the devastating human impact of combat” (Kirkus).

In contrast to the intimacy and sensitivity of Solitude, viewed as a novel of “feelings,” Body was almost universally classified as a war narrative: “The Human Body is a great novel of life in wartime” (Joshua Ferris); “The Human Body is a brilliant addition to the literature of our modern wars” (Kevin Powers); “Paolo Giordano has written his generation’s war novel” (Andrew Sean Greer); “Giordano follows The Solitude of Prime Numbers with a stunning exploration of war” (Publishers Weekly in a starred review). Still, the same reviewers and others saw more to it than that: “a heartfelt meditation on how men, together and collectively, repair the burdens of their fate” (Joshua Ferris); “[The Human Body], like his last, is full of sensitivity and intelligence” (Kevin Powers); “the book is less about military heroism than the devastating human impact of combat” (Kirkus).

The Human Body was shortly followed by Like Family, Giordano’s recently released third book, which was embraced by critics in a number of glowing reviews: “This wonderfully poignant and heart-rending story looks at everyday lives with both reason and compassion. Author Giordano has a lyrical voice and an uncanny ability to create easy dialogue, real characters and a powerful message” (June E. Peschel, St Louis Post-Dispatch); “Mr. Giordano’s elegiac work, which benefits from a finely etched translation by Anne Milano Appel, is a tender and mournful homage to [a woman] who held a family together without ever quite belonging to it” (Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal); “A Tiny, Hugely Affecting Book . . . What does it ever mean for someone to become a part of your family? . . . Translator Anne Milano Appel deserves a great deal of credit. A book this short would struggle mightily without acute lyricism. Tough to achieve in one language, it is a craft to render such prose fluid in a starkly different one, and Appel in this case put her trade on masterful display” (Zach Borenstein,

Perhaps because of the familial, personal treatment, several reviewers chose to see Like Family as a throwback to The Solitude of Prime Numbers, with The Human Body as an anomaly of sorts, at variance with the others. Consequently, the novella-length narrative focusing on a young family and the woman—housekeeper, confidante, nanny, and indispensable glue—who holds the small household together and keeps the family’s fragile fabric from unraveling was hailed as a “deeply personal portrait of marriage and the people we choose to call family,” and as a return to the “intimate domestic setting that first made him an international sensation,” according to his publisher. And: “With Like Family, Giordano returns to the domestic front. Once again, he explores loneliness so pervasive that it persists even when one loves someone” (Heller McAlpin, NPR Book Reviews). One review even went so far as to say: “If you’re familiar with Paolo Giordano because of either of his first two novels, The Solitude of Prime Numbers or The Human Body, be aware that Like Family has little in common with them” (Jennifer Bart Yacovissi, Washington Independent Review of Books).

But is it truly a return? Was the second novel truly a departure? Is there a dominant theme, a filo rosso, that links the three books together, a similar engine that drives each of the narratives and serves as a unifying thread? In fact, there may be several such threads woven through the three works, binding them tightly together.

As I see it, the last line of a review of The Human Body in Kirkus can be said to sum up this Ariadne's thread with these words: “Well-observed and compassionate, this is a memorable look at imperfect people in extreme circumstances.” To me this suggests an affinity based on the nature of the characters. In their own way, each of the three narratives deals with “imperfect people,” in settings that vary and that are more or less extreme: Solitude focuses on individual traumas, Body centers around the brutality of war, while the loss of Mrs. A. provides the boundary-shifting and life-altering event in Family.

The similarity lies in the compassionate eye trained on the individuals who are caught up in these events. Though it is a commonplace to say that novels can be plot-driven, language-driven or character-driven, the latter category is a useful thumbnail when applied to Giordano’s work: narratives where we encounter unforgettable figures, haunting individuals who linger in our heads long after we’ve finished reading the book. It’s not just that the characters are substantially drawn, it’s that they are human; they’re people we know, imperfect, even damaged, people. Giordano sees into his characters with clarity and compassion, with a scientist’s eye that is nonetheless feeling, and not without a certain humor, as he records their foibles and shortcomings, their absurdity and humanity, registering their craving for affection and their capacity for decency as well as fear and despair.

Perhaps one reason why his characters are so empathetically drawn may lie in Giordano’s method. Speaking of Body, he described it this way: “I think I approached it in a very similar way to The Solitude of Prime Numbers. I tried to give to each soldier a part of my own personality and a few of my memories and developed him/her starting from those. I’m not sure whether the result is a complete and faithful picture of people serving in the army, but for sure it is a wide picture of the currents that flow inside of me—a sort of spectral analysis of my inner self.”

One of the affinities among all three novels relates to the inability of the characters to connect: solitude and loneliness. Despite their best intentions and their longing for warmth and human companionship, for closeness and camaraderie, these individuals seem to glance off one another, in a kind of “go away closer” dance. They approach, then retreat, move toward one another, then rebound, come close to connecting, then ricochet. It is the classic “double bind” in which an individual sends or receives conflicting messages. The result is a failure of communication and an emotionally distressing situation in which successful relationships are unlikely. Though this is most evident in The Solitude of Prime Numbers, it features in The Human Body and in Like Family as well. In The Human Body, for example, there is a disconnect which leaves many of the characters—Senior Corporal-Major Cederna and his girlfriend Agnese, First Corporal-Major Torsu and Tersicore89, Marshal René and Rosanna Vitale, Lieutenant Egitto and Irene Sammartino, Corporal-Major Ietri and Corporal-Major Zampieri—circling in their separate orbits, solitary, detached, isolated. Similarly, the married couple in Like Family are challenged by their respective humors, his black and hers silver: “What Galen does not explain clearly is whether humors can be mixed together like paints, or whether they coexist separately, like oil and water . . . nor whether an exchange between individuals is possible . . . as it would be between two communicating vessels. For a long time I thought it was . . . I was wrong.”

Giordano himself, when I queried him, suggested three additional threads that run through the books and tie them together. He considers the relationship between Like Family and The Human Body to be “very strong,” the most compelling continuity being the fact that both have as their central focus the human body. As well as death. And war. Body deals with young bodies and with war as it is generally understood. In Family, on the other hand, the body is that of an elderly woman; the war, though no less brutal, is one against illness. As if to underscore this, we find the protagonist in Family on a plane, reading a book about cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: “Each paragraph holds Mrs. A. up to the light and denies me one more milligram of hope for her. Mukherjee describes an all-out war, one marked by a few prominently featured successes, but in the end, a failed venture.”

In a Q&A on his publisher’s site, Giordano went on: “If you think about it, all three themes—the body, war and death—are also present, though in a different way, in The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Perhaps the reason why Like Family is at first glance seen as being more closely related to Solitude is because they both play out in the realm of intimate affections, whereas The Human Body ventures further ‘outside.’ But it seems to me that in the end they are all three very closely related.”

He also proposed another theme that he believes unites Like Family and The Human Body, though he feels it has less to do with The Solitude of Prime Numbers. It is the fine line that separates the age of youth from that of adulthood. Whereas in Body the soldiers cross this line in a very traumatic way, in Family the two protagonists find themselves straddling the line, “they have one foot here and one foot there, so to speak,” and the death of Mrs. A. is one more nudge toward becoming adults. “Basically, in both books I suggest more or less the same thing: that becoming adults almost always coincides with the ability to ‘settle down.’” To commit, to form a union, to attain and accept adulthood. Though Giordano is right about this theme not being present in The Solitude of Prime Numbers, perhaps it can be said to feature in a negative sense in that the two young people struggle to cross the line into an adulthood, a connection, that they are never able to reach.

Giordano is currently at work on his next book and, like most writers, is reluctant to talk about it. Per scaramanzia, Italians would say, for superstitious reasons, for fear of jinxing its development. Talking about a work in progress might attract bad luck or dry up the creative juices. Better not to, just in case. Remember Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea? When he felt the weight of the fish pulling on the line, the old fisherman was happy and he thought “What a fish.” He thought the fish would turn and swallow the tuna-baited hook, but “He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.”