Sue Woolfe's 'Infinity': math as metaphor

March 23, 1997|By Carolyn McConnell | Carolyn McConnell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Leaning Towards Infinity: How My Mother's Apron Unfolds Into My Life," by Sue Woolfe. Vintage Books. 393 pages. $24.95.

If you tilt the number eight on its side, its voluptuous curves suggest a woman's body. It also is the symbol for infinity. Australian novelist Sue Woolfe's first U.S.-published novel invites such startling thoughts. This is a novel about the sensuousness of mathematics.

An Australian acquaintance of mine, asked about Woolfe's work, said, "Oh, she's one of those Australian feminist writers." The dismissal was perfection itself: he could admit everything and yet grant nothing.

Such dismissals are the very substance of Woolfe's work. Framed as the memoirs of a woman mathematician, Frances Montrose, as told to her mathematically challenged daughter, it is the story of three generations of women struggling to be both women and thinkers, efforts which are dismissed again and again. They scribble equations on the backs of envelopes as the milk burns on the stove, and wallpaper the bedroom with mathematics notes. "No mathematics today, only window cleaning," one day's entry reads.

Yet this is no rant against housekeeping. The depth of the book lies in its realization that "the divine and the trivial often slide into each other as if they're part of each other." The story of Frances' mathematical discoveries begins with the shape of her mother's breasts. "[She] has always been mathematics to me," she says. Yet Frances gets her mathematical ability not only from her mother, but from her carpenter father who could not count past 10 but had an exquisite spatial sense.

In one of the book's most haunting scenes (perhaps a sly reference to Mishima), Frances and her brother look through the keyhole at her mother naked in the bath with her illicit lover. Such a scene - the child's sexual awakening at the revelation of the mother's sexuality - is a literary staple. Yet here the motif is transformed. The mother and her lover are not having sex, nor is the lover even looking at her naked body. Instead, he is reading Cantor's theory of infinity to her.

This deeply philosophical book abounds with references to philosophers such as Gottlob Frege and Charles Peirce and mathematicians such as Riemann. Its concerns are the fundamental questions in the philosophy of mathematics - are numbers out there waiting to be discovered, or is mathematics mere formalist invention? What is the relation between mathematics and the physical world?

But this is no philosophy text masked as a novel. It is an unblinking depiction of the terrible damage mothers can inflict on their daughters, a universal tale of a cycle of harm that traps a family. Juanita, rejected by her mother and stifled by her husband, places all her hopes in her son, while her rejected daughter Frances eavesdrops on his mathematics lessons. Frances Montrose ultimately breaks the cycle. She finds redemption in mathematics - and in peeling potatoes.

This is not a flawless work. It is highly ambitious, perhaps overly so. But it is a lyrical book, the deepest novel of ideas I've read in years, and, yes, it is feminist writing in the best sense.

Carolyn McConnell is a graduate and instructor for The Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars. Before that she was an editor with Earth Island Press and writes widely on nature.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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