“Mathematician’s Shiva” by Stuart Rojstaczer is both a funny and a poignant debut novel.
A world-famous female mathematician, Rachela Karnokovitch, has just died. As her family and friends gather, intending to have a private funeral, her meteorologist son Alexander (Sasha) realizes that her fellow academic mathematicians intend to pay their respects and sit shiva (Jewish mourning ritual) with them.
These colleagues are convinced Rachela has left behind the solution to one of the Navier-Stokes equations, which has defied solution for 100 years.
In the evenings during the seven days of sitting shiva, they search the office, walls and floorboards, as a correct solution to any of the seven problems results in a $1 million Millennium Prize. Sasha and his father are both published researchers in their own right – but are not at the same level. They are, however, proud of her work and protective of her legacy.
Rachela had been born in Poland and escaped during the war with her family to Russia and lived behind the Iron Curtain near the Arctic Circle, only to find that regime was also anti-Semitic.
She and her parents ended up in a Soviet prison camp facing starvation and extreme temperatures. The Russian experience made her grow up quickly and at the age of 11 Rachela began to think differently. It was then in the labor camp that, with the help of an extraordinary teacher, she discovered that she was really gifted in math.
Years passed and eventually Rachela married, had a son and immigrated to Madison, Wis., becoming a well-respected professor.
As the family sits shiva for Rachela, old friends and acquaintances appear to be changing the family dynamics. Sasha is divorced and at loose ends when the family gathers. Even Sasha’s long-lost daughter shows up at the shiva.
Yet, even though he and his father, uncle, cousin and step-sister may squabble, they love each other fiercely. The novel is interspersed with chapters from Rachela’s unpublished memoirs in which she describes the hardships in Poland, her determination to survive, the benefits of skiing in icy cold weather and the cutthroat competitiveness among mathematicians.
This multigenerational story of the immigrant experience, family dynamics and loss and the elegance of mathematics is bittersweet, funny and at times quite moving.