The Last Equation of Isaac Severy

by Nova Jacobs
Touchstone, March 2018, $25

Subtitled A Novel in Clues, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy asks the question “What if mathematics not only described the universe, but could actually predict the future?” When Isaac, the patriarch of the eccentric and exceptionally mathematically gifted Severy family, dies under suspicious circumstances, his far-flung clan gathers for the first time in many years.

Hazel, a Severy by adoption, and perhaps the most down-to-earth and ordinary family member, receives a cryptic letter from her grandfather, instructing her to destroy his recent work “before others find it,” and not to contact police, “even those related to you.” A recently homeless proprietor of a failing bookstore, Hazel struggles to figure out how to carry out her late grandfather’s instructions, while reconnecting with her quirky relatives and trying to avoid dealing with her personal crises. Meanwhile, several others—both family members and mysterious outsiders—are desperately seeking the dead genius’ final work. Can Hazel trust her charming long-lost cousin Alex? Why is her brother Greg acting so strangely? And who was following Isaac just before he died?

Alternating between Hazel’s point of view and those of her brother Gregory (a police officer) and her uncle Philip (a once-brilliant CalTech physicist who fears his best work is behind him), The Last Equation of Isaac Severy moves briskly through a series of puzzling clues and unexpected plot twists, keeping the reader intrigued all the way to its satisfying final resolution.

The numerous members of the Severy family, from precocious five-year-old Drew to senile grandmother Lily, are delightfully diverse and memorable characters. This entertaining debut novel has a cinematic feel that suits its Southern California setting. No special affinity for math is needed to follow Hazel, Philip, and Gregory as they navigate family drama and the streets of Los Angeles in search of answers.

Jean Gazis
Teri Duerr
March 2018