Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Enchantress of Numbers

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace by [Chiaverini, Jennifer]

Enchantress of Numbers- Jennifer Chiaverini
Dutton/Penguin Group
Release Date: December 5, 2017


Synopsis: The only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the most brilliant, revered, and scandalous of the Romantic poets, Ada was destined for fame long before her birth. Estranged from Ada’s father, who was infamously “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Ada’s mathematician mother is determined to save her only child from her perilous Byron heritage. Banishing fairy tales and make-believe from the nursery, Ada’s mother provides her daughter with a rigorous education grounded in mathematics and science. Any troubling spark of imagination—or worse yet, passion or poetry—is promptly extinguished. Or so her mother believes.
When Ada is introduced into London society as a highly eligible young heiress, she at last discovers the intellectual and social circles she has craved all her life. Little does she realize that her delightful new friendship with inventor Charles Babbage will shape her destiny. Intrigued by the prototype of his first calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and enthralled by the plans for his even more advanced Analytical Engine, Ada resolves to help Babbage realize his extraordinary vision, unique in her understanding of how his invention could transform the world. All the while, she passionately studies mathematics—ignoring skeptics who consider it an unusual, even unhealthy pursuit for a woman—falls in love, discovers the shocking secrets behind her parents’ estrangement, and comes to terms with the unquenchable fire of her imagination.
In Enchantress of NumbersNew York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini unveils the passions, dreams, and insatiable thirst for knowledge of a largely unheralded pioneer in computing—a young woman who stepped out of her father’s shadow to achieve her own laurels and champion the new technology that would shape the future.


As the only legitimate daughter of the famous Lord Byron, Ada was famous even before she was born.  Thanks to her mother's estrangement from Byron, Ada never met her father.  Her mother spent her entire life trying to erase any hint of imagination, fancy, poetry, or anything else that would connect Ada to her father's "bad Byron blood" and focus Ada's mind on math and science instead. But as the sheltered child becomes a woman taking her place in Society, Ada meets other likeminded people- most importantly Mrs Mary Somerville and Charles Babbage.  Living during a time of incredible mathematical, scientific, and technological advances, Ada longs to make her mark of the world and champion Babbage's computing machines as a new technology that will change the future.

I first heard of Ada, Countess of Lovelace, in a Computer Science History class my first year of grad school.  Although mentioned as the first computer programmer, Ada was little more than an intriguing  footnote at the dawn of the computer age.  As interested as I was in finding out more about this intelligent woman who must surely have fought against the accepted ideas of her day to take her place in history, the overwhelming demands of a first semester in grad school distracted me from searching out more about her.  When I saw a description of Enchantress of Numbers all my interest came rushing back and I was eager to read her story- especially since I'd developed a much better understanding of the time period, history, and social culture of early Victorian England in the meantime.

Jennifer Chiaverini's novel starts with the whirlwind relationship between Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke: giving us glimpses of Byron's mercurial temperament, his infamous relationship with Anne's cousin Lord Melbourne's wife Lady Caroline, and all the warning signs that theirs would not be a happy marriage.  No one can blame Anne when she leaves Byron and works to keep their infant daughter from ever coming under his influence.  Except for this early prologue the novel is told from Ada's point of view- meaning that many of the questions we have (especially about her mother!) are never fully answered, but only guessed at by Ada herself.  Ada's oppressively strict upbringing by what we would consider today an emotionally abusive mother, is heartbreaking- perhaps more powerful because while Ada herself knows no alternative, Chiaverini knows her modern audience will see its loneliness and rigidity for the controlling efforts they are.  The reader can't help but be amazed that Ada turns out as gentle and compassionate as she does.  We also see what Ada only realizes later- that science and imagination are inseparable if one is to be able to claim true genius and create the exciting new technological future celebrated in the Great Exhibition at the end of the book.  

Ada's friendship with Charles Babbage and her championing of his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine are clearly the high point of Ada's life (and therefore the book) and create more drama and interest than one might imagine.  Her continually difficult relationship with her mother and the constant shadow of her father and his secrets are written in ways that ensure they are always present and natural without being too overbearing or heavily written.  What I found most frustrating about the book- although probably very true to life- was that Ada's own accomplishments don't come across to the reader as the revolutionary work they are argued by historians to be.  Ada always describes her work as her 'studies', as if she is never more than a modest amateur student.  The concepts that she describes are a foreign language to a non-mathematician like me and so I was not able to fully appreciate or understand how her ideas might revolutionize Babbage's engines or even how they later come to be considered the beginning of computer programming.  Ada understood Babbage's computers in ways even Babbage did not and spent most of her adult life working to explain to a largely indifferent public both what the engines did and, more importantly, what they could do.  But when the scientific world learns it was a woman who wrote these explanations, the revolutionary work is considered not nearly as important as it might have been.  After all, if a woman thinks it is important, it can't possibly be.

A well-written and interesting book, Enchantress of Numbers leaves the modern reader frustrated that Ada lived in a time and society that felt women's intelligence was naturally inferior to men's, that study might actually be physically harmful to women, and that Ada fights her entire life without receiving the scientific acknowledgement or the unconditional familial love that she so clearly deserved.  You are also left in awe and admiration for a woman who quietly fought her entire life for the right to discover her passion and the joy she received from it, despite being surrounded by naysayers.   

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

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