Book Review: The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer


Book reviewed by Judy Levin. What chutzpah to put the word shiva in the title of your novel!

Well, thanks to Seinfeld, I suppose most everyone in America knows that shiva is the Hebrew word for the Jewish seven-day mourning ritual following a death. That being my first thought upon reading the title of this novel, my second thought was – is this going to be another This Is Where I Leave You, the Jonathan Tropper novel set during shiva for the family patriarch? Like Tropper, Rojstaczer zeroes in on the family through the eyes of one particular member -- a son. He also gives us humor and pathos, deals with divorce, estrangement, loneliness and self-assessment. But Rojstaczer additionally shares a most interesting family history with us, one that reveals many math mysteries and also takes place in the good ol' Midwest.

The shiva is for Rachela Karnokovitch, most often referred to as “a remarkable woman,” world-renowned Russian mathematician rumored to have secretly solved and hidden away the solution to a century - old mathematical problem. Her home in Madison, Wisconsin, where she has lived and taught at the University for 48 years, becomes a beehive of activity following her death. Alexander “Sasha,” her son and only child would have liked to mourn his mother’s passing in private. But as soon as the news about Rachela’s death is out, family, friends, students, fellow mathematicians, admirers and fierce academic competitors descend upon the house.

As shiva proceeds, each day reveals more of Rachela’s story. From an Arctic Circle work camp where her father was sent for being a “Capitalist Enemy of the People” and her remarkable mathematical abilities are first recognized, to defecting the West following a talk given in East Berlin in 1951, she becomes a tenured mathematics professor at the University of Madison at the age of 22! Yes, indeed, “a remarkable woman.”

While the mathematical community descends on the shiva house hoping to find the hidden solution to the Navier-Stokes Equation, we also meet the family – Sasha’s father, also a mathematician, Rachela’s beloved scoundrel of a brother, and other assorted relatives all come calling for shiva. But although the history and mystery of the story belong to Rachela, the unwinding of her story and the gathering of all these people following her death becomes the backdrop to propel Sasha to new understandings of his mother, father, family and finally his own history.

As most “coming to terms with your life stories go,” the final catalyst that propels Sasha forward from the loss of his mother arrives in the form of the daughter and granddaughter he has never known due to a divorce from years past. Meeting these women who connect his past to the present enables Sasha to truly emerge as a new man able to tackle this next and new stage in his life without his mother.