Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby

A math whiz blows a huge presentation just days before graduation, and now he’s haunted by the ghosts of his family’s past tragedies and the very real threat posed by his unhinged rival.

The afterword says that M. Ann Jacoby toiled at Life After Genius for years. I’m hoping it doesn’t take her as long to get the next one out because she’s got a great writing style and brings a lot of intelligence and originality to her storytelling. The book is reminiscent of the movie Rushmore, only without the cutesy factor–her characters are idiosyncratic without being quirky. The result is that Mead’s journey feels epic and important, as well as suspenseful, thanks to Jacoby’s well-engineered structure and unexpected plotting.

I was really good at math when I was younger–made it all the way to AP Calculus II, with As and everything. But it wasn’t my passion, so I didn’t pursue it at all in college, and now I’ve forgotten everything except the quadratic formula. Even so, I’m drawn to the beauty of higher math, the way that numbers dance as though they don’t need people at all. I always hated the word problems in physics–I’d get too caught up in the narrative to be able to turn it into an equation. Jacoby captures the joys of math and makes Mead’s passion come alive. She doesn’t bog the story down explaining the intricacies of the Riemann zeta function, but she’s not afraid to talk about it either. I might not know how Mead is calculating zeta zeros, or what the critical line looks like, but I liked that she trusted her readers enough to use some jargon. It made the story feel real and helped me lock into Mead and identify with him.

Mead is a boy genius, off to college just shy of his 16th birthday and scheduled to complete it by age 18. He’s surrounded by scheming academics, a jealous rival, a family of undertakers, and naked girls thanks to the dormitory’s coed showers. Fists fly, hearts break, and families disintegrate and it’s funny and poignant and edgy and real. Outstanding debut!

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