This is a full spoiler review! Read at your own peril!
Math is the universal language. No matter what corner of the planet you hail from or which language you speak, pi will always be represented by 3.14. The speed of light is always written as 3.00 x 108 m/s, commonly shown as c. E = mc2 is taught in classrooms across the globe, in multiple disciplines. The history of mathematics is the history of the world, of invention. Math is all around us, hidden in our daily lives. Predictive algorithms are used in finance, marketing, healthcare, retail, and just about any other industry one could imagine. Equations are used in nearly every technology today, and more math goes into ensuring your smart phone functions than sent the first astronauts into orbit.
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs, consists of equal parts mathematics and family drama. At the center of everything is the Severy family, a dynasty of intellectuals and mathematicians, responsible for some of the finest work of the last century. The book treats them as minor celebrities, both in their home of Los Angeles and around the world. At least, among certain circles. The family patriarch, the titular Isaac Severy, even tried to create an equation to predict and solve Los Angeles’ growing traffic problem before his apparent suicide at the start of the novel. His oldest son, Philip, is a lead researcher and professor at Cal Tech. This is a family with high expectations; expectations which the novel makes very clear are often unrealistic and toxic. At the start of the novel, Philip’s twin sons are absorbed by their love tennis, while his daughter is a semi-successful artist. His mother suffers from dementia. His sister is a recluse who disavowed her son after he solved a difficult problem but failed to publish his result before someone else. Philip’s younger brother, Tom, was abusive and negligent to his two adopted children. The constant dysfunction and pressure to become a brilliant mathematician, ignoring all other walks of life, leads to one, singular question amongst this family: what makes a person truly remarkable?
Our hero in all this chaos is Hazel, adoptive daughter of Tom Severy and adoptive granddaughter of Isaac Severy. In a sea of light skins, light hair, and an affinity for the sunnier climates, Hazel is an outlier. At the start of the story, she actually lives in Seattle, far from the rest of her family, who rarely stray from Southern California. She runs a failing bookstore and has recently lost her apartment, living in the backroom of her store in the meantime. And yet, it is to her that Isaac Severy entrusts his legacy. A letter, sent just before his death, reveals that his last equation is being sought after by some very dangerous people. He tasks her, the most unassuming of his relatives, the one they would least expect, to find and destroy his work before it falls into the wrong hands. Her isolation from the rest of her family grants her a certain autonomy while carrying this out. She is free to move within their circles without scrutiny. However, it is not without a handicap in the form of Alex, a long-lost Severy cousin, who takes advantage of Hazel’s attraction in his own pursuit of the equation. It is worth noting that the two are not blood related.
As for the equation itself, it is something spectacular. A good portion of the story focuses on Hazel trying to decipher what, exactly, the equation does. Although Isaac once told her she had the mind of a logician, Hazel has no love for mathematics. Using his formula, Isaac somehow found a way to predict murders in the greater Los Angeles area. However, in one of the larger twists of the story, the equation hunters learn that Isaac’s math cannot distinguish between suicide and murder. After all, as a certain antagonistic character postulates, isn’t suicide a murder of the self? Despite this, Isaac put together a map of upcoming deaths, complete with location, date, and exact time. In a relatively grounded story, this is the only time it delves into true science-fiction. While the math may not be realistic, that really is not the point. Is such prediction really the work of fate? Or does knowledge of events allow someone to circumvent them. At least one supposed murder becomes a suicide, and one suicide is survived. The equation may provide an answer, but it does not always appear to be the answer.
While Hazel and Alex search for the equation, P. Booth Lyons, the one character who could be called an antagonist, attempts to recruit Philip to her company and continue his father’s work on the predictive equation. Hazel and Philip are two of our three point-of-view characters, and the stories of both are intertwined in obvious ways with Isaac’s work. The third character, Gregory, Hazel’s blood brother, stands slightly apart. He spends most of the novel following Tom Severy, his and Hazel’s adoptive father and former abuser, recently released from prison. As the story progresses, Gregory’s grip on sanity loosens. He stops showing up to work, following Tom around day and night. He cheats on his wife; an affair which ends in a disaster of his own making. All the while, his belief in fate grows. Isaac, in the development of his equation, discovered something about his adoptive grandson which led him to reveal the existence of the equation to him. This event leads Gregory to believe in the fate of mathematics, to justify his actions as preordained by the universe. While Hazel’s life is publicly dysfunctional, the pursuit of the equation gives her an opportunity to improve herself. Gregory hides his dysfunction, and in doing so allows it to grow and consume him in his pursuit of Tom.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Malibu, Cal Tech, downtown, Eaton Canyon; the Severy family bounces between the highlights of the city. It is clear that Nova writes with the love of Los Angeles that only a local truly understands. Despite this, the book never quite accomplishes a sense of place. Readers are told what part of the city they are currently in, but it never feels like the city. The words say Union Station, but it is difficult to picture it; the people everywhere, the occasional bird that flies inside, the train announcements. LA traffic occupies a role as a plot point, but the characters never suffer through travelling south on the 5 at midday, and entirely circumvent the 405 and 10. No mention is made of the labyrinth that is navigating downtown’s off-ramps. It can be thematically fitting, however, that the book ignores the world at times. After all, the Severy family has made ignoring the world an artform.
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy is Nova Jacobs’ first novel. She has worked on other books and written a few screenplays. She received an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, right in the heart of Los Angeles. She understands this city and its people in a way few writers do, and understands how residents often cannot see what’s around them or take it for granted. In writing this story, she has provided one answer to the great equation of writing. Imagination (Plot + Character) + (Work Ethic – Doubt) = Story. Solve for story.
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 14 days
Next on the List: The Body Library, by Jeff Noon