Continuums - Excerpts from Opinions and Reviews

“In this remarkable first novel, Robert Carr asks age-old questions about the heart in conflict with itself: how do we choose between our life’s work and the needs of loved ones? Carr manages ddeftly to draw us into his characters’ lives, such that by turns, we agonize and rejoice with them, particularly with Aroso, the outgoing genius, and Alexandra, the incoming one. An extraordinary debut! One can only wonder why Carr didn’t come to this art sooner. It’s where he belongs.”

(Joseph Kertes, awards-winning writer)

“The beauty and endless mysteries of mathematics are central to this work of fiction. Continuums is partly about the resolution of Cantor’s Conjecture, or the Continuum Hypothesis, and partly about people trapped in their own worlds, unable to find a way out. Alexandra is a brilliant mathematician whose career and family unravel following the flight of her brother from Communist Romania. She finally departs for North America and leaves behind her husband and daughter. Asuero Aroso is Alexandra’s first mentor and, then, colleague. An extraordinary but obscure mathematician stuck in Romania, he is a Sephardic Jew, born in Istanbul, a former student of the eminent David Hilbert in the days when Gottingen was the world center of mathematics. His is the story of a young genius, of an incompatible and unhappy marriage, of an epochal mathematics discovery left unheralded, of a man caught in an absurd and cruel political system. Robert Carr has created a bold, imaginative and engaging novel.”


I am not a professional Amazon reviewer - in fact this is my first review - however, you deserve to read this novel. I will confess I have met Robert Carr and that is how I learned of this wonderful book. I am a math-phobe and not a scientist. Yet I loved this artful story of the ambivalence a woman feels throughout her life in every choice between love and ambition, nurture and freedom.

(Reader comment in - A truly excellent first novel, Nancy Zalusky Berg, 08 March 2009)

I was interested in this book because I worked in Romania for 6 years and was curious at how life over there would be presented. The characters depict quite well what I had been told regarding how things were in that period. Very well written as well. Good read.

(Reader comment in - A great first novel for Carr, Emma Leer, 18 January 2014)

I just finished reading Robert Carr's novel and I was so taken by it that I would like to congratulate him and thank him for the sheer delight he gave me through his wonderful book …

… I have no particular interest in Romania … even less in the Romanian Jewish community during the Second World War, and … I never particularly liked mathematics at school either ...  My point here is that it is all the more remarkable that his novel succeeded in captivating me and moving me so intensely that I am taking the time to write to you, given the fact that wouldn't it had been so great, this novel seemed to have all the ingredients not to be to my liking!

(A reader in Montreal, Jacques Fontaine, July 2009)

I just finished reading “Continuums”. I tried to snatch time to read whenever I could because I just wanted to keep reading. I love it; it is written so well.

The “flashbacks”, or stories about the past (Aroso’s memories, Istanbul, different mathematical references) are masterfully included, they don’t stop the flow of the “present” story, they weave in and out, and they are never confusing – as I find so often in other books.

I admire the use of the English language. Never pretentious, always clear. A nice proportion of more elaborate sentences, or very short ones, makes for effortless and enjoyable reading.

The characters are well designed, and the reader lives with them, suffers with them, participates actively in their lives, memories, yearnings, problems.

I am definitely no expert in mathematics, but the delicate balance – for a novice reader – between understanding or just getting a feel for what is involved in the specific mathematical issue, is intriguing and attention grabbing.

Same for the references of “exotic” locales like Bucharest, different Romanian villages, Istanbul, Gottingen, even Canada for future readers from other countries. It adds an unending interest, even a desire to go there and see for oneself these places.

The book is permeated with the melancholy, the sadness, the hope, the disappointment, the curiosity of a new life, the missing of the old one, the love-hate of the native land versus the adopted one, which is so true for any immigrant. I think this is an important book for anyone who has lived through these uprooting and re-adapting processes, and maybe even more for those that did not.

During the time I read the book, I lived together with Alexandra, with Leonard, with Charles, with Aroso, even with Emil, Ada, and Ovid. I thought about their lives, about where they were heading, what will happen with them, what I would have done in their situation. I could not wait to return to the book and find out.

I read against a background of melancholic music in my head. I was wondering what kind of music would reflect what I was reading. The feelings, the hopes, the disappointments. Sometimes one of Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies, or Mozart’s 40th symphony, or maybe a slow Bach piece for violin.

The author succeeded in creating this general feeling, hard to define, never easy to pinpoint, of deep sadness, of lives in the turmoil of fate. I wish I had his talent for words to express this better.

I must add that the book looks good, clean printing, generally nice to handle.

I loved the title, the ambiguity…I felt so privileged to read such a valuable piece of writing …

(A reader in Toronto, Myriam Shechter, 25 November 2008)

In Continuums by Robert Carr, mathematician Alexandra Jacobi-Semeu takes advantage of her international reputation to escape Ceausescu’s Romania, but loses her daughter in the process. Although mathematics is at the heart of all three of the book’s story lines, it is the decisions people make and the consequences they have to live with that are really its main focus.

When we first meet Alexandra in 1969, her life seems relatively pleasant. She is a very successful mathematics professor in Bucharest, married to an equally successful medical doctor, and the mother to a daughter, Ada, whom she adores. The only problem she faces is that her husband expects her to do all of the housework and resents the time that she spends away from the family doing research. Then, an unexpected announcement from her brother completely changes the dynamics of her life. Leonard Jacobi, who had trained to be a research mathematician but opted instead to do calculations for a government office, was more troubled than his sister by the oppressive politics of their home country and planned an escape. Once he was safely in Canada, the fact that she knew of his plans and did nothing to stop him was used against Alexandra by an omnipresent network of spies and party agents. Her fame prevents this from having much of an effect on her career, but her family life suffers terribly.

As her marriage deteriorates, Alexandra becomes romantically involved with a Quebecois mathematician with whom she has written a seminal series of papers on analytic number theory. Finally, after several years of this longdistance affair, she secretly meets her lover at an airport when attending a conference abroad and escapes to Montreal. However, despite achieving even more recognition for her research, she is in motional turmoil over her decision to leave Ada in Romania with her father. This provides the main tension, and its resolution constitutes the climax of the novel. However, the story does not proceed in a simple ‘‘arc’’.

Interestingly, Carr intertwines Alexandra’s story of decisions and consequences with two others, both also having mathematical components. One is the story of Asuero Aroso, Alexandra’s elderly teacher and mentor who is caring for his bedridden wife. He recalls his life story for Alexandra, beginning with his upbringing as a Jew in Istanbul, his youth as a math prodigy and his studies at Gottingen under David Hilbert. The dramatic turning point in his life came when he rejected an offer from Richard Courant of a professorship at Gottingen so that he could be with the woman he loved in Romania. He claims he was so confident of his mathematical genius that he was certain he would succeed no matter where he was. In retrospect, this does not seem to have worked out for the best. It is therefore significant that he advises Alexandra to leave for the sake of her research even at the risk of losing her family.

Her brother’s story is also one of a mathematician living with the consequences of his dubious decisions. Leonard has reason to question his decision to defect because of the disastrous effect it had on his sister’s life …

The book also contains many long discussions of mathematics itself, including advanced mathematical terminology.

Sometimes, the mathematics is used metaphorically (e.g., comparing the independence of the continuum hypothesis to the freedom people have to make choices in their lives) … Unusually for mathematics in fiction, this is all handled perfectly. With one small exception (a metaphor about a couple who have nothing in common described as ‘‘two sets with no union’’ rather than ‘‘two sets with no intersection’’), the mathematical aspects of the text read as if they were written by a professional mathematician. The interaction between collaborators and the details of submitting papers for publication in mathematics journals are also entirely realistic. All of this leaves me wondering who the author, Robert Carr, really is and how he came to write this book …

 (A review by Alex Kasman - Department of Mathematics, College of Charleston - in “The Mathematical Intelligencer”, 2009 Springer Science+Business Media, Llc)

“In ten opening pages of concise and subtly suspenseful exposition, Robert Carr's debut novel pulls us deeply into the world of a Jewish woman in communist Romania. It's 1969, and Alexandra is a prize-winning mathematician in Bucharest. A respected professor in demand at international conferences, she is also chief cook and domestic planner for her husband and young daughter.

Waking in bed beside her husband, making breakfast, getting little Ada dressed for school as she thinks ahead to her work day, she's instantly recognizable. She could be a successful young academic in any large city, juggling the competing needs of family and career. We know her.

Then we start to notice the darker forces at play, making her hostage to her country's political morass … there is the younger brother who one day invades her sacred weekly refuge, on Sunday mornings, in her book-lined university office. Leonard has insisted on a meeting. He arrives and persuades his reluctant sister to join him for a walk in the nearby park, in blustery January weather. We soon understand why he will not converse in a government building. Well into the twisting pathways of the park, Leonard tells her of his decision to escape the country. It will inevitably put the rest of his family under suspicion. They are, he tells her, free to join him if they wish - on a mission bristling with risk …

The backstory is filled in: Alexandra as a gifted teenager mentored by the brilliant but obscure mathematician Aroso, also a Jew, whose career has been hobbled by professional conflicts. In Aroso, a man isolated by rarefied understanding and shackled by politics, she finds a kindred mind. Like all Romanians, academics are finally beholden to the Soviet behemoth. Even certain numeric formulas are suspect. "Counting infinities was perceived as a dangerous branch of mathematics ... more prudent to ignore until a clearer signal was forthcoming from Moscow" …

Including Aroso's back story, the novel spans seven decades. Structurally loose, it gains force from Carr's nuanced character work and vividly drawn settings …

A closing chapter, even a closing sentence, can make or break a book, dissipating its promise or gathering its themes into a knockout punch. Robert Carr's uncompromising final punch fully honours the dilemmas of his characters, their deep regrets, their fragile hopes.”

(Globe and Mail, Jim Bartley, 10 Apr 2009)