An enchanting new novel from Jennifer Chiaverini

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By: 
Matt Geiger

There is a passage in “Enchantress of Numbers,” in which Ada Lovelace reflects on her newborn son. While others marvel at the dark-eyed infant’s potential and dream of his future, she “so passionately adored the perfect little creature he already was” that she “gave no thought to what he might be five, ten, or twenty years in the future.”

There is an immediacy to her experience. It is not some far off, high-minded concept. It is here, now. There is immediacy to all of Jennifer Chiaverini’s upcoming novel, as well, which is an impressive feat in the realm of historical fiction.

Lovelace, although often ignored by history books, has all the makings of a legendary, iconic figure. She unleashed an “almost awful energy & power” onto the world when she wrote what many consider the world’s first computer program. She was an intellectual. She was the daughter of one of her time’s greatest celebrities. (And he was a scandalous celebrity at that.) Her life was full of duality and tragedy.

But she was also a human being, whose life began amid her parents’ marital turmoil and ended at the young age of 36, cut short by cancer. For these reasons and others, “Enchantress of Numbers” has an almost Dickensian feel to it. The stories in it may be big or small, but the characters and their human qualities are enormous. People are what they do, as Jung pointed out, and some people are rueful, some are kind, some are bitter and some are shimmering and bright. Many modern authors sacrifice realism and humanism for obsessive nuance: heroes must be anti-heroes, villains must have a sad and tidy explanation for their villainy, everything in shades of gray. Not Chiaverini. Ada Lovelace might be flawed in some ways, but the author is refreshingly unrepentant in her portrayal of her as good, and brilliant, and creative, and ultimately likeable. In that way, Ada Lovelace is like David Copperfield if he helped invent the greatest thinking machine in the history of human civilization. In “Enchantress,” as in “David Copperfield,” the author gets out of the way and lets the protagonist tell her own story. It’s in her voice that you hear the tale while you read it.

Rule number one if you want to have an interesting life should be this: be born to Lord George Gordon Byron. “He was a genius, some whispered in awe. He was a libertine, said others, looking scandalized, but often no less admiring.”

Byron was a rock star of his era. While his emotionally lavish life was partially responsible, he wasn’t just famous for being famous; he was a celebrity because he wrote poetry that dazzled and captivated readers in the 1800s, just as it does today. Poetry is not even close to being my favorite literary genre, but even I can recite most of “She Walks in Beauty.” I’ve been able to ever since I was 15 years old, when the magnificence of the world and those around me was almost too much to bear, and I first encountered a sweeping, roguishly sentimental ode to a beautiful woman in one of my school textbooks.

Lord Byron doesn’t last too terribly long in “Enchantress of Numbers.” After all, he and Ada’s mother, Annabella, parted ways when she was just a baby, and he died when she was still a child.

He is a writing legend, but he would never be in the running for a “Father of the Year” award. Yet his presence looms throughout the book. For Ada’s mother, he is a villain whose tendencies - toward unhinged passion and wild sentimentality - must be suppressed in her daughter’s budding character. Ada is brought up to be a critical thinker, with a scientific mind that will protect her from her father’s many perceived eccentricities and flaws.

As Annabella puts it when she and her husband part ways, “Byron had willfully chosen the path to damnation and was striding cheerfully down it, away from her, away from Ada.”

Growing up, Ada is surrounded by her mother and her mother’s friends and family, “who perpetually hovered around [her] like a swarm of judgmental wasps.”

But, and this might not be the first or last time in history this has happened, children do not always grow up to be exactly who their parents wish them to be. Ada, in her short life, somehow managed to hone her analytic mind and unleash an enormous dose of creative thought onto the world. After all, the Analytical Engine on which she worked wasn’t just some dull code - it was a doorway to a limitless new world of information and thought. Without it, we might not have anything of the modern world. Without that doorway being opened, it’s hard to imagine modern medicine, art, culture, war, or information sharing. Without it, we wouldn’t have cracked the human genome, or sent people into space. It rivals the wheel in terms of cultural significance.

Despite her upbringing, Ada’s imagination thrives. She confides that she is pleased to be “the rare sort of wild creature” that survives “fairly well in captivity.” Ada Lovelace was unique in her mental powers as a mathematician and scientist, but there is no denying she had something of her father’s great poetry inside her. This is one of many things you realize as you read Chiaverini’s portrayal. That combination - of science and art working in tandem - is the kind of rare power that can literally change an entire world.

Those already familiar with Chiaverini’s work - she is a New York Times bestseller, so there are plenty of them - will recognize some familiar themes here. Shakespeare is present, with an apt quote from Macbeth. Like that play, “Enchantress of Numbers” does often feel like a tragedy. Ada is so likeable and so genuinely alive that when Chiaverini (spoiler alert) kills her, you almost want to bring her up on murder charges for her crime. Then you remember that Chiaverini works as an enchantress too, conjuring the stories of people long since departed from this world. Even she can’t make them live forever, except between the pages of books like this. And as every booklover knows, all books, even good ones, come to an end at some point.

When she died, Ada Lovelace was laid to rest beside the body of her famous father. They were separated for much of their short lives, but they are spending eternity together right now. In this novel, shortly before that eternity begins, Ada laments that her time is running out. While she was content to love her infant son in the present, she looks to the future when she considers herself and her own legacy. She worries she will not see the Analytical Engine in action. She longs to sit back and marvel as is transforms the world. She suspects her narrative will survive her, and she hopes history might remember the part she played.

But while her father remained famous in death, she was often forgotten - omitted from many history books, or relegated to the footnotes. I knew little more than her name when I cracked open the cover of “Enchantress of Numbers.”

But history isn’t over, yet. With Chiaverini’s new book, Ada Lovelace finally gets some of the credit she deserves. Not just for her contributions to mathematics and science, or for the poetry of her imagination, but also for being a real person, of flesh and blood, who achieved something we all strive for but so few of us manage: to live a remarkable life. 

 

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