A mystery that’s fun but not necessarily light, Nova Jacobs’ novel is subtitled “A Novel In Clues.”
“The Last Equation of Isaac Severy”
by Nova Jacobs
Touchstone, 336 pp., $25
The subtitle of “The Last Equation of Isaac Severy” by Nova Jacobs is “A Novel in Clues.” How clever, maybe even a bit twee. Is Jacobs about to lead readers on a choose-your-own-adventure chase? In a way, yes.
This debut mystery is fun, but not necessarily light. In scene one, protagonist Hazel Severy, a 30-something failed bookseller, attends the funeral of her grandfather, the titular Isaac Severy, a mathematician of international repute. His death plunges his family and friends into deep mourning. Enter Philip Severy, Isaac’s son and near-professional equal. While Isaac dedicated his life to pure math, Philip is a theoretical physicist obsessed with his place in the history of string theory. Enter also Hazel’s beloved brother Gregory, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. Oh, and weird cousin Alex.
As Jacobs peels back the layers on the Severy clan, we will discover Philip is a professional prevaricator in his personal life, Gregory has some unresolved issues, and Alex is as much of a liar as all the rest of them — and I have not even mentioned all of the rest of them.
When Hazel decides at the funeral to break the seal on a letter from her grandfather, she sets in motion one set of clues that will take her from a typeset puzzle to a mysterious pink hotel to — well, no spoilers. At the same time, the perspectives of Philip and Gregory show that there are darker layers in the family than Hazel knows.
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Isaac may have understood the dysfunction of his son and grandson, which is why he sends the confused and damaged but also kind and honest Hazel down a rabbit hole of his own making. If ever there were a book-length explanation of “a method to his madness,” this is it. Isaac plays a shell game with his beloved granddaughter that even involves a shell game (or at least the explication of one).
If, occasionally, going down the rabbit hole with Hazel seems digressive, that is all right. It staves off some heart-wrenchingly sad realities on the surface. Hazel and Alex get closer and closer to understanding Grandfather Isaac’s “last equation,” and it is a doozy. Nova Jacobs has penned a novel that is anything but clueless, filled with consideration and compassion for the different levels of human damage and comprehension.