book review, historical fiction, history

Review: Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

Enchantress of Numbers tells the true story of [Augusta] Ada Byron King, the daughter of the famous poet, growing up in the shadow of the famous father she never knew.

I admit I did not know much about Ada or Byron historically, so it was certainly interesting to read how liberal and pioneering Ada and her family were. Much of the story focuses on Ada’s tenuous relationship with her overprotective mother. Ada’s mother presumably harbors fears that Ada will become “mad” like Byron was, and so from a very early age she steers Ada toward all things real, practical, and logical. While imaginative in her intellect and passionate about her projects (like trying to develop means to fly at 12 years old), Ada develops a deep passion for mathematics and science. Ada often chafes against her mother’s rule, always frustrated by her mother’s tight grip and strict parenting. And it is little wonder, given the brief and doomed relationship of Annabella and Lord Byron–and Byron’s scandalous sins. Chiaverini opens the novel focusing on Annabella’s perspective upon meeting, marrying, and eventually separating from Byron.

As Ada grows older, she seems to develop a greater understanding of why her mother was so strict with her–and perhaps even an appreciation of her mother’s liberal thinking toward her education. Without it, Ada would have never been encouraged to and maintain her studies of high level Mathematics, and would have never developed professional relationships with Charles Babbage and Mary Somerville. Still, Ada must always contend with her father’s long shadow, as well as the “bad Byron blood” that flows through her veins. Ada often chalks any indiscretions or unconventional thoughts or actions up to the “bad blood” she’s inherited from her mad father.

While I found Ada’s true story interesting and intriguing, Chiaverini’s narration and writing did not enchant me. I found the writing very dry, and time jumps would happen to fast and abruptly that I often felt disoriented and lacking in a sense of place and time. Furthermore, about 90% of the story seemed to be told in summary, rather than in scenes and dialogue. Very important events would happen in summary or “off-screen,” and I found myself wanting the author to slow down and go into that scene rather than gloss over it. I do not like this stylistic choice of summary (i.e. telling instead of showing. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true,) because I feel it greatly hinders the reader developing any sort of close bond with the characters. I felt like I knew Ada and her mother the best, but everyone else was very thinly drawn and two dimensional. If there wasn’t so much summary in this story, I would have connected to the characters and the narrative.

Grade: C (sorry!)