Reviewing Stuart Rojstaczer, The Mathematician’s Shiva, Penguin, 2014
The Mathematician’s Shiva is a feel good novel that doesn’t require the reader to be Jewish or a mathematician to enjoy. In fact, learning a little about both is a side benefit to this very readable journey.
The death of a parent can be a traumatic time for any person no matter his or her age, but when the parent is a world-renown mathematician and the son is, in terms of his career a lesser light, on top of which he has to entertain a sometimes rude band of academic geniuses and near geniuses for a week in his mother’s home, well then we have the basis for a potentially very interesting story.
Rojstaczer pulls it off by a light-handed approach (most of the time) to such weighty topics as his mother’s childhood in the Soviet Union’s gulag, the anti-Semitism and male chauvinism she faced, the protagonist’s failed marriage and the math community’s intemperate desire to discover if the protagonist’s mother solved before her demise a major decades-old problem known as Navier-Stokes.
Most readers will not cringe at the mild criticism of American culture expressed by the protagonist and will probably agree that the widespread disdain for intelligence is a cultural flaw that deserves being highlighted. Further, that criticism is balanced with appreciation for the fact that the protagonist and his parents were able to escape the old world and make a good life for themselves in the new.
Rojstaczer and his editors could have offered more translations of the occasional Polish and Russian comments which are interspersed in the dialogue, but in the end those didn’t take away from the core of the story which ends on a moderately happy note with the protagonist solving his personal problem of facing the future as a single male with no contact to his sole off-spring.