Just when I was getting a little weary of knocking down the unread pile of books from my shelf, Aimee Bender’s quirky novel about a socially awkward 20 year-old elementary school math teacher pleasantly surprised me with its unique perspective and wittiness. To simply summarize the plot wouldn’t give proper credit to the effect that the first-person narrative has upon the reader. The math teacher, Mona Grey, is a slightly neurotic and eccentric person who obsessively knocks on wood as her “invisible sign” to deal with her troubles. She sees numbers in everything around her and has a fear of the smell of soap.
Mona’s neuroses developed when she was a child and her father became ill with an unnamed disease that caused him to quit his job and his running (he was a track star in his past) to only wander about the family house privately, avoiding the world at large. As her father is nearing his 51st birthday Mona is privately melting down out of fear that he won’t live past 51 because it is the first non-prime, non even, non-special number. The pressures build as she is faced with many challenges including many uprisings in her classroom, an awkward romance with the school science teacher, and the disappearance of the hardware store owner that happens to be her parent’s next door neighbour and her elementary school math teacher. Through all this burdening pressure there is some beautiful writing that artfully expresses the pressures within Mona’s troubled mind, for example:
“The world can ask you to participate, but it’s a day-by-day decision if you want to agree to that proposal.” (113)
As book-ends to Mona’s mental crisis, the novel begins and ends with variations of the same fable about a kingdom where people do not die. The burgeoning over population has caused the king to require a sacrifice of one family member in order for the kingdom to persist with its ever-increasingly limited resources. This fable is essentially a segue into the importance of numbers for the protagonist, Mona Grey; for to Mona the loss of family, the loss of resources, and any loss can be represented numerically. For example:
“It is all about numbers. Is is all about sequence. It’s the mathematical logic of being alive. If everything kept to its normal progression, we would live with the sadness – cry and then walk – but what really breaks us cleanest are the losses that happen out of order.” (195)
The clean-break from the sequence comes when Mona allows herself to learn from one of her students who’s mother is dying of cancer. This child’s loss allows Mona to let go her neurotic fears about her father’s potential death. In that letting go, Mona is able to imagine a kingdom where moving on to another kingdom, or in other words – letting go – is just as much an option as is the King’s decree that every family must sacrafice a family member in order for the kingdom to survive.
All of the pieces of the story add up to make a perfect equation and when I closed the cover after finishing it I had a smile on my face – that is a visible sign that this novel has achived something unique and was worth the read.