Review: Enchantress of Numbers

EnchantrCover: Enchantress of Numbersess of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

Dutton Books, 2017.  Hardcover, 448 pages.

Ada Lovelace was born Ada Byron, daughter of Annabella Milbanke and George Gordon, Lord Byron.  While her more famous parent was a celebrated poet, Lovelace took after her scientifically-inclined mother and is now known as the world’s first computer programmer.

Told in the first person, Enchantress of Numbers opens with Ada recounting the story on how her parents met, married, and separated and the scandal it caused.  It continues through her upbringing, where her mother encouraged rigorous study and her father was absent.  It is easy for readers to see that Ada took refuge in her studies due to her mother’s actions towards her, which included frequent absences and discouraging imagination.  Once Ada becomes a teenager, we see her take her first steps towards adulthood as she ventures into scientific circles after her coming out.  She becomes fast friends with mathematicians Mary Somerville and Charles Babbage, becoming particularly enthralled with Mr. Babbage’s Difference Engine, a type of early computer.  Somerville becomes her mentor.

Once Ada marries (William King-Noel, First Earl of Lovelace), readers follow her through that part of her life.  Not only did she raise three children alongside her husband, she also managed to maintain her studies in the hopes of contributing to the scientific community herself.  Her major work, a translation of an Italian-language article on the Analytical Engine, Babbages’ second machine that improved on the first) with annotated notes (that were basically a paper themselves) is the one for which she is remembered thanks to her understanding of the subject and the formula she wrote, which became the first computer language.

As always, Chiaverini presents an engaging, historically-detailed novel.  Readers will gain an understanding not only of Lovelace, but also her mother and scientifically-minded friends as well as many aspects of her father.  The descriptions of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine are accessible to all readers, though I would have enjoyed a bit more detail about them.  I cannot help but to pity Lovelace due to her controlling mother, though the same woman was also the one that encourage her intellectual growth.  Unlike the previous autobiographical novels by Chiaverini I have read, this one covers Lovelace’s entire life, not just a portion.  This helped to create greater sympathy and understanding of this often overlooked person. Outside of the main focus, Chiaverini did an excellent job providing historical context, working in the government changes and actions throughout as well as the events that occurred abroad before her father’s death.  The former is not easy as British politics are nothing like American.  All in all, another excellent work.

Have you read anything else on Ada Lovelace to recommend?  Do you think you will read this novel?

This review is based on an advanced reader copy provided by the First to Read program.


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