The French Mathematician:A Novel

Written by Tom Petsinis
Review by Kelly Cannon

“Mathematics is my life.”

This doesn’t seem a very exciting declaration coming from the protagonist of a historical novel set in revolutionary France of the early 19th century. However, this fictionalized account of mathematician Evariste Galois’s life ushers us directly and intimately into the mind of one whose discoveries continue to influence present-day nuclear physics and genetic engineering.

Having had his early education at home under the tutelage of his literary-minded mother, fifteen-year-old Evariste Galois is sent to Paris to complete his education. A sensitive, arrogant genius, he detests the school, the teachers, and all the other students. Then he is exposed to mathematics for the first time and knows he has found that thing that so few of us ever do: his calling. To Evariste, mathematics is its own reward, a refuge of logic in a chaotic world. It is the key to unlock the secrets of the universe. It is a new and superior religion. He vows he will be the first to solve the quintic, a complex equation that has confounded many great minds.
There are obstacles in his path to this goal. First, he must struggle to suppress his own emerging sexuality. Then, there are the schoolmates who continually goad and harass him to join their Republican groups. Less easily ignored are the grievous social inequities and turmoil surrounding him. When his father dies, an alleged suicide, Evariste at last begins to question his singular devotion to mathematics.

Evariste tells his own story, addressing himself to an imaginary biographer who shadows him throughout the book, experiencing events as he does, all in present tense. While this type of narration can be off-putting, Petsinis utilizes it respectably and often with great drama. He adeptly conveys to the reader information which the protagonist himself misses. His prose is rich with original and evocative metaphors and similes, and his flair for verb choice gives the story a distinctively realistic feel.

Self-centered, egotistical and insolent, Evariste is difficult to like at the outset. Yet the reader soon glimpses the fragile and idealistic heart of an insecure young man possessed of remarkable mental gifts. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand the noble soul of Evariste Galois — his consuming desire to give his life to a meaningful cause and to attain immortality through his work.

Recommended for readers with an interest in early 19th-century France, and also those with mathematical or scientific leanings.