An Improbable Success

I just finished reading an advance proof of the debut novel by Adam Fawer, Improbable, which his publishers are describing as “brilliantly accessible prose [that] weaves an action-packed, fast-paced plot with dynamic characters and straightforward explanations of historical and modern theories of mathematics, probability, quantum physics and psychology” (full synopsis posted earlier on this site).

Based on this description, my interest and hopes were piqued, but I actually believed that the likelihood that the book would fulfill that ambitious promise was best described by the book’s title. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, like the book’s protagonist, this book beat the odds and lived up to its billing.

It’s difficult to provide adequate exposition on such complex topics as quantum physics, probability theory, and Jungian collective unconscious, while still keeping the narrative flowing, interesting, and convincing. Like The Da Vinci Code, the sensation of a bestseller to which Improbable‘s publishers are appropriately likening this book, the book relies on the presentation of these ideas as much more than mere dressing. (Disclaimer, in case one is needed: I’m one of the millions of readers who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code.) Always a challenge for such “thinking thrillers,” it’s easy for an author to get sucked into scenes that read more like lectures than fiction. To this book’s credit, much of the theory is actually presented as lecture, in the form of a college classroom, but not all of it can fit into that neat framework, and even the classroom bits can seem a little forced at times.

That said, the book is a lot of fun, and the smart use of probability theory to support the plot is one of the most satisfying aspects of the book, adding a great deal of thought to what would otherwise be a more standard action novel, which, though indeed fast-paced and exciting, was not what attracted me to the book in the first place. I found the sexy rogue CIA agent, explosions, and bullet-dodging less attractive than the brains of the book. Fawer clearly did his homework when he studied statistics in college, and the only thing that keeps me from thinking it’s a shame that he’s not teaching somewhere is the fact that he is instead using his talents and knowledge to write a book like this.

The end of the book was a little too tidy for my tastes. If wrapping up the various elements of the book into a single system is necessary or desirable for this book (I don’t necessarily think it is), I’d expect it to be a little messier around the edges. Still, the fact that Fawer does pull it all together, and in a way that does work, is a testament to the ambition and talents of this author. I put the few criticisms I have for the book (and they’re largely quibbles) down to the work of a debut novelist. I look forward to reading Fawer’s next book and recommend this one highly.