Book Review – Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

I believe the first I heard of Ada Lovelace was from one of my college roommates taking a Women in Mathematics class. Years later, I learned the full extent of her influence on mathematics and early computer science, as well as the fact that she was Lord Byron’s daughter. When I read the description for Jennifer Chiaverini’s Enchantress of Numbers, I was excited to get a more tangible portrait of such a significant woman in STEM than I’d been able to find from simple, factual research (the humanizing of historic figures one of the reasons I adore historical fiction). However, Chiaverini’s approach to Ada Lovelace and the story of her life wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. It’s not badly written, but it did fail to resonate with me and often left me unexpectedly bored.

Enchantress of Numbers is told by Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace in the first person but is narrated by her as an adult and (unknowingly) near the end of her life. Yet it begins with a lengthy examination of how her parents met, married, and how that marriage fell apart. From there, it progresses chronologically through all but the very end of Ada’s life. It’s written as though it could be a memoir and it often felt more like a memoir than a novel. It also tended to feel more like a book about Lord Byron’s legacy and failed marriage than about his daughter. While I don’t doubt that coming to terms with her absent, famous father and the way it impacted how her mother raised her were crucial in how Ada Lovelace grew up and her personal sense of identity, it made the book (and Ada’s life) feel like it was all about her parents and not really about her at all. Just as she seems to reconcile the two influences in her life, the novel (and shortly thereafter, her life) ends.

I know I can be overly picky when it comes to first person narrative, but this novel is one of the best examples of why the approach so often grates on my nerves. Beginning with the extended prologue narrated by Ada though we find out near the end of the book just how late in her life her mother told her that story, there’s revisionism and reflection throughout the novel that keep the events taking place at too great a distance to connect with in any meaningful way. In the first chapter, we learn that Ada is composing the tale possibly for her nearly grown children, so it removes nearly all sense of urgency when she makes a serious social faux pas or when she falls ‘dangerously’ ill. Because it’s narrated in first person, she frequently calls attention to the fact that everything she’s describing is long past and what she thought at the time isn’t what she thinks now and other variations on that theme. It supports the memoir approach to the novel but, along with a heavy reliance on what might well be direct quotes from Ada Lovelace’s letters and papers, I often felt like I was reading a well-sourced but oddly framed biography or book report rather than a novel.

There are gestures toward the angles and subject matter that drew my interest in the first place, but none of them feel entirely fleshed out on the page. The mathematics and Ada’s fascination with and the functioning of the Difference and Analytical Engines are not easy to describe or explain. Chiaverini manages both poetically if not altogether thoroughly or technically. Similarly, the tension between Ada’s role as a mother along with the expectations upon her as a countess and her academic pursuits is addressed superficially but doesn’t reach the depth of feeling I would have expected.

Ultimately, I think the novel was long and meandered more than it should but I also think both are partially the result of the narrative approach and keeping a little too close to the source material, including too much detail of Ada Lovelace’s biography and not enough personality or life.

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