Book Review: A Doubter's Almanac

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The description from Netgalley: In this mesmerizing novel, Ethan Canin, the New York Times bestselling author of America America and other acclaimed works of fiction, explores the nature of genius, jealousy, ambition, and love in several generations of a gifted family.
Milo Andret is born with an unusual mind. A lonely child growing up in the woods of northern Michigan in the 1950s, Milo gives little thought to his talent, and not until his acceptance at U.C. Berkeley does he realize the extent, and the risks, of his singular gifts. California in the seventies is an initiation and a seduction, opening Milo’s eyes to the allure of both ambition and indulgence. The research he begins there will make him a legend; the woman, and the rival, he meets there will haunt him always. For Milo’s brilliance is inextricably linked to a dark side that ultimately threatens to unravel his work, his son and daughter, and his life.
Moving from California to Princeton to the Midwest and to New York, A Doubter’s Almanac explores Milo’s complex legacy for the next generations in his family. Spanning several decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, A Doubter’s Almanac is a suspenseful, surprising, and deeply moving novel, written in stunning prose and with superb storytelling magic.

So, based on that description, it sounds like it would be right up my alley right? Spanning generations, moving around in time, almost like a “Beautiful Mind” type story… it’s easy to see why, based on its description, I quickly requested it from Netgalley! The publication date for A Doubter’s Almanac is set for February 2016.

The story opens with a look into the childhood of Milo Andret. He’s a lonely child. His parents are odd, distant and very independent from one another, including Milo. Milo spends most of his days in the woods, carving objects from the tree branches and exploring, reading, existing almost entirely on his own and in silence. He’s bullied in school – he’s very different from the other kids, but he’s not a bit bothered by this as the bullies tend to leave him alone after awhile, once everyone has settled into school.

Then, Milo is discovered by one professor at Berkley for his mathematical genius. He becomes the professor’s protegee and goes on to discover a solution to a complex mathematical theory. During this time, he meets a girl named Cle and with her, discovers sex, drugs and alcohol. He also develops an antagonistic relationship with another mathematician. This relationship with Earl Biettermann is filled with jealousy, contempt and competition. Following his great solution, he is hired as an assistant professor at Princeton (Milo takes great pains to ensure that you know he’s only an assistant professor). His social ineptness continues, however here at Princeton, he becomes increasingly more dependent upon alcohol and also turns into a despicable womanizer. Milo is like a savant, but he cannot and does not understand the social world beyond his limited world view, or outside of the bottom of a bottle.

At Princeton, he becomes involved with the secretary in the department, yet continues to spiral deeper and deeper into his own strange world. His drinking is getting in the way of his work – he’s missing classes he’s supposed to be teaching, he hasn’t been working on his new problem to solve and he spends an increasing amount of time in bars getting drunk (and chasing other women).

Over the course of reading A Doubter’s Almanac, my feelings for Milo became more and more distant. Well, once I had only reached the first 25% of the story, I was feeling this way. He’s a cold, despicable man and not a character I warmed to for the most part.

He goes on to win the Fields Medal, and he’s discovered two important solutions to complex mathematical theories, but he still remains empty and unhappy. “No drink, no pill, no woman could fill in this odd feeling.” He’s accomplished so much. Yet no love. Would anyone love him? Is he capable of loving anyone? When asked if he wanted children of his own one day, his reply was, “Oh, he said. Kids – God no.” Then he added, “That would be cruel.”

Then, Part Two begins. And whoa, the story gets flipped right on its head and since it is now being told from the perspective of Milo’s son. He explains that the story we’ve been reading up until this point is about his father. The story we’ve just read is the one Milo Andret told his son. Now the story continues on being narrated by Hans Euler Andret – Milo’s son. It was jarring to settle into this new perspective. From this point on, Hans tells the story, and says that Milo married that departmental secretary and had two kids, one boy, one girl. Hans and Paulette. However, his parents marriage is a crumbling mess and their existence resembles a marriage very similar to Milo’s parents.

We also hear that Milo burned every bridge made for him at Princeton and was fired. The department head was gracious enough however to find Milo a job teaching at a small-town university in Ohio. This is where Hans and his sister Paulette are raised. Both Hans and Paulette are mathematical geniuses as well, yet we don’t hear much about Paulette. From this point on, not only are we hearing about Milo’s life – the one where he is father, husband, failed mathematician – but we are hearing now about Hans’ life as well. He’s also a failed mathematician and is now teaching high school math classes. Hans also has two children, and those children are also mathematically gifted. Those children aren’t often mentioned much either however.

At this point, Milo Andret is suffering from years and years of alcoholism. He’s a terrible drunk and his body and his behaviour is destroyed by the excessive drinking. Hans tells us the toll his drinking has taken on their family, and how Hans as well becomes an addict. And, much like Milo, he’s not a character to warm to or make a strong connection with.

The whole story is told in this cold and distant manner, or it felt like this to me. At the halfway mark in the book, boredom settled in. Not much more is added to the story, nothing to propel it forward, only more of what a terrible drunk Milo Andret is, and how his son has followed quite closely in his footsteps with his addiction issues and mathematical gifts.

For a story that was to look at generations of mathematical geniuses, all stemming from the great Milo Andret, there is little said about the other generations, outside of their claiming the genius gene. Milo is nothing more than a drunken jerk that wasted his potential and passed the attitude down to his son. This  cold, distant and fairly matter-of-fact manner of telling the story made it read as though it was lacking a soul.

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