Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Calculating Woman

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is the fictionalized story of Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace. In real life, not only was she the only legal child of the famed poet Lord Byron, but she was a talented mathematician and scientists, who made huge contributions to those worlds during the late 19th century. In Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel, she becomes much more than that.

Although I usually start my reviews with the positives and then follow them with misgivings, I’m going to depart from tradition with this book, and I hope you’ll understand why. As some of my readers already know, I’ve noticed that with historical fiction, authors don’t always know how to reach the perfect balance between fiction and facts. This happens most often when there is a plethora of true information available about that person, even when it seems that few people know about them. This is precisely the problem I had with this book. While it may seem unfair of me, once again, the book I was hoping to read and what I received, were two different things.

To be specific, I already knew a little bit about Lady Lovelace, in that she had some hand in the mathematics that went into building a machine that many would consider the forerunner of today’s computer. I also knew about the punch-cards used in Jacquard looms to create intricate patterns and designs for woven fabrics, and how those cards eventually led to using a similar system for inputting data into computers (and I’m old enough to have worked on a computer like that). So, my interest with the Lovelace of then and learning more about what she did that led to computers was irresistible to me. Unfortunately, the opening 30% of this book focused solely on Lord Byron and his marriage to Ada’s mother, through their disastrous separation. While this give the reader great insights into Ada’s long-suffering mother, and motivation for how she treated her only daughter, I’m almost certain that this could have been deleted from the book without any detriment whatsoever.

When Chiaverini finally got to Ada’s tale, I was really hoping that we’d get quickly into the real meat of the story. However, Chiaverini starts out by leading us to believe that Ada could recall the most obscure details of her early life, even from her first weeks and months after her birth. With this conceit, coupled with a surplus of intrigues and scandals within the extended Byron family (that lasted decades), Ada’s accomplishments seemed overshadowed, apart from the many references to how deeply (almost obsessively) she loved to study math and science. Of course, the irony here is how often Chiaverini notes that Ada wanted to do something and be recognized in the world for her own accomplishments, and not just as Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter.

You might ask, therefore, why I bothered to finish reading this book. The fact is, I couldn’t stop reading it because Chiaverini is such a marvelous writer. Her style beautifully fits the period, with lush descriptions (although I could have done without some of the details of the dresses) that made every scene come alive. Yes, there were times when I found myself skimming some of the text, but that was very rare. I know I use the word “compelling” often when reviewing books, but when the shoe fits… and Chiavernini’s prose just kept me fascinated, so kudos to her for that. Furthermore, the readers will feel an intimacy with Lady Lovelace throughout this book, as Chiavernini writes it fully from Ada’s viewpoint, as a type of fictionalized memoir.

In addition, I must admit that Lady Lovelace’s contributions to the field of math and science, though significant in hindsight, weren’t what anyone could call massive, or extensive, or even large. What she accomplished were three very important influences upon Charles Babbage and his “engines.” Those were her suggestion to use the Jacquard loom punch cards for more efficiency of entering data, her publication of her notes on Babbage’s work, and her writing an algorithm for one machine. By the way, that algorithm is arguably considered to be the first “computer program.” So, with only two breakthroughs and one major publication (which the world of science initially lauded, but then dismissed after they found out that it was written by a woman), I realized that any historical fiction novel about Lady Lovelace would be very thin indeed if it didn’t include at least some of her family’s history – both famous and infamous.

In short, if you’re looking for a book about Lady Lovelace that divorces her from her renowned father and his notorious life, this isn’t it, but I’m afraid that novel will either never get written, or will be very short. However, if you’re looking for a novel that encompasses everything that Lady Lovelace was and did, and everything that influenced her short life, this is just the thing. Mind you, I personally think it included far too much extraneous information (particularly the first 30% of the book), but that only proves how marvelously well researched this book is, and that’s in Chiaverini’s favor here. All things considered, I’m still willing to recommend this book, but I can only give it three stars out of five.

Dutton (a division of Penguin Random House) released "Enchantress of Numbers" by Jennifer Chiaverini on December 5, 2017. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (eBook or audiobook), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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