On the morning he was to die, the old man woke early and set about making breakfast.
These are the opening words of Nova Jacobs’ debut novel, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy. If the title conjures suppressed memories of algebra homework never fear. You don’t have to remember the Pythagorean theorem to enjoy this book.
Billed as a suspenseful thriller, the novel centers on Hazel Severy, struggling owner of a Seattle bookstore. Facing poor sales and a looming stack of bills, she receives news of the death of her grandfather, Isaac Severy, a world-renowned mathematician, in what the police have described as a suicide. After arriving in California for his funeral, she is sent a letter from her now-deceased grandfather postmarked the day before his death.
Littered with misspellings and grammatical errors, his note asks her to destroy his work, except for a final equation he has developed that she must deliver to one of his trusted colleagues. He warns her of a shadowy group working to obtain the equation and implores her to trust no one. It’s up to her to follow the clues and find the equation.
A Un-clichéd thriller
On its surface, the story seems as though it could comfortably accompany the well-trod clichés of contemporary thrillers, yet Jacobs manages to inject both literary and emotional depth primarily through family drama. The Severys are a mess and full of secrets. They are also mixed, as Hazel and her brother, Gregory, were adopted into the family out of foster care. Isaac’s death stirs together a potent cocktail of grief, suspicion, and familial wounds.
Each member of the Severy tribe would benefit from a round of counseling. Philip, Isaac’s son, lives in the proverbial shadow of his father and obsesses over his legacy in theoretical physics. Gregory, an LAPD officer, internalizes unresolved anger, which affects both his work and home life. Then there’s Alex, the cousin no one knew existed because they were told he was a girl. And that’s only a select few.
When Hazel tears open her grandfather’s letter, she unseals far more than a simple treasure hunt. And she’s not the only one searching. Before long, an elusive company begins stalking her uncle and she’s faced with deciding whether or not to trust a helping hand, in spite of her grandfather’s warnings as she inches closer to discovering his coveted equation.
There’s nothing wrong with a mindless thriller, but it’s rare to find one that entices its readers with more than the “whodunit.” With The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, Nova Jacobs has added together elements of mystery, grief, and family to provoke thoughtful reflection, the bulk of which comes through the unveiling of Isaac’s equation, which doesn’t disappoint.
If I had known mathematics could inspire such absorbing questions, I might still be able to figure out the area of an isosceles triangle.
Building Your Bookshelf
Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith
Evi is happily married and nine months pregnant when her husband, Eamon, is killed in the line of duty. Grief-stricken, she delivers their son, Noah, and attempts to figure out how to raise a child on her own. Six months after Eamon’s death, his step-brother, Dalton, moves in with Evi to help her grapple with the day-to-day life of caring for an infant. Shifting between each of their perspectives—Evi, stuck at home during a blizzard, Eamon leading up to his death as he wrestles insecurities about fatherhood and his career, and Dalton as he faces his own insecurities of living in the shadow of Eamon—Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut is a gorgeous novel about loss, grief, and the healing power of relationships.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
What do you get when you combine salmon fly-tying, the British Museum of Natural History, and a twenty-year-old American flautist? One of the most notorious heists you’ve never heard of. In 2009, Edwin Rist casually stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bird skins from the Tring outpost, which boasts one of the world’s largest ornithological collections. Even worse, he got away with it. Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson caught wind of the story during a fishing trip in New Mexico, kindling a personal obsession with understanding Rist’s motives for the crime and tracking down the clues to return as many skins as possible to the museum. The Feather Thief is a fascinating journey into both the creative hobby of fly-tying and the impulse of greed that continues to jeopardize ecological health today.
The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy
The May Mothers are a group of brand new moms whose children share the same birth month. They meet every week to discuss updates, support each other through struggles, and celebrate the joys of motherhood. As the Fourth of July approaches, they plan a baby-free get together at a local Brooklyn bar, craving a night of carefree fun. As drinks and dancing ensue, the evening soon plummets when one of the infants, Midas, is abducted from his crib. His mother, Winnie, a single mother, soon becomes a prime suspect and the friendships of the May Mothers are put to the test as their secrets are uncovered in the race against time to find out what happened to Midas.