Addition by Toni Jordan

Addition by Toni Jordan 2008. French title : Tu pourrais rater intégralement ta vie.

 After discovering that John Self + Lou Ford = Matt Freeman  I was more than happy to bury myself into Toni Jordan’s Addition. Just what kind of addition is this?

Grace Vandenburg is 35, lives in Melbourne and hasn’t worked for 25 months. Although we only discover later in the novel why she lost her job as a teacher, we are immediately aware of Grace’s problem. Grace counts. Everything. Her footsteps, the stairs, the number of seeds on her cake. She measures everything, keeps in touch with the outside temperature. Numbers qualify things, put reassuring fences in her life.

Numbers rule her life as comforting milestones. She strictly follows the same schedule everyday; she does exactly the same things at the same time. She’s fond of 10s and thus buys things by tens at the supermarket. She’s single, usually interacts with no one but her mother and her sister Jill who minutely call every Sunday at 8:00pm and 8:15pm respectively. “Interact” is perhaps optimistic here. Grace talks to them over the phone but there is no real conversation; they exchange small news and everyone thinks their duty is done. Grace’s only relationship is with her ten-year-old niece Hilary.

Grace admires Nikola Tesla a Serbian-American scientist. He was an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity and is best known for developing the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. (Wikipedia) To me his name brought back vague memories of unintelligible physics classes. To Grace, he’s like a lifebelt. He was also a bit off-kilter and was still a genius, something Grace finds comforting.

Grace has her life mapped out, so when she realizes at the cashier of her usual supermarket that she picked only nine bananas instead of ten, her need for accuracy is such that she relieves the customer next to her of the banana he has in his basket. She’s horrified by her slip and is still recovering from it in the parking lot when the above mentioned customer catches up with her and enquires after the reason why she stole that banana.

This is how and when she meets Seamus. What will come out of this encounter is up to you to discover. In other words, read the book.

Addition is a lovely book. I wish I could do it justice by writing a lovely review. It’s a first person narrative and we see the events and life in general through Grace’s eyes. She knows her addiction to number limits her life and she lives with it.

Life would be different if I didn’t count, I know that.

But without it the world would be too big and too dangerous. An endless void. I’d be lost all the time. I’d be overwhelmed.

She has come to think of her difference as a blessing, most of the time. She sees life through a peculiar angle, blurts out hilarious replies and is as funny as her illness allows her to be. But despite her acceptance, she is suffering:

I want it to stop. I want it all to stop.

Suddenly I’m sick of it. Sick of counting all the time. Of all the little games and rules and orders and lists and chewing my food 30 times and drinking a cup of tea before bed every night. I want to have a job and go to the movies and have a family and people over for a dinner that is not chicken and vegetables. I want to be like everybody else. I want to run as fast as I can in bare feet and on grass like I’m a child and my hair is streaming behind me. I want to run and I want to feel my leg muscles stretch and pull and my chest heave in the service of my freedom.

I don’t want to count anymore.

Don’t think it’s a sad book, because it isn’t. Addition is a plea to accept difference. We want to heal mental illness for people to be “normal”. But define “normal”? It also subtly points out how our societies want us to comply with the married-two-kids-a-house-and-two-cars model. There is a tendency to present it as the only way to be happy. Once I heard someone say about a thirtysomething single woman that she had no life. How can that be? She had friends, family, a job and hobbies. Isn’t it a life? As Grace points out:

Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. 10 or 12 grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it.

You could miss your whole life.

I do like the idea of cherishing mundane events and make the most of everyday life. Jordan’s novel is a light read, funny, with an unusual character. I enjoyed the way she intertwined Grace’s life with references to Tesla’s life. I was caught by the book, I couldn’t put it down. Light literature isn’t easy to write. The author is walking on a high wire, on one side they can fall into the void of so much comedy it becomes vulgar or silly and on the other side they stare at the dangerous precipice of mawkishness.

I bought Addition after reading a post about Toni Jordan on Lisa’s blog. Thanks Lisa! I had a great time.

PS: Now that you know about Grace, you can guess there are a lot of numbers in the book. That explains the foreword I talked about here.

  1. April 2, 2012 at 1:28 am

    While I like the book’s philosophy, I suspect that this is too romantic for me.


    • April 2, 2012 at 9:50 pm

      Yes it is. That’s not a book I’d choose for you as a gift.


      • April 4, 2012 at 1:37 am

        When I need a change of pace, I typically pick a light-hearted crime novel.


        • April 7, 2012 at 3:54 pm

          I can’t read serious literature all the time.

          I saw this morning in a bookstore that the display table with Marc Levy, Guillaume Musso and Charlaine Harris is called “littérature de divertissement”. Those marketers, never short of ideas…


  2. April 2, 2012 at 3:15 am

    My wife read this, and she wasn’t overly impressed (and she definitely didn’t recommend it to me!). She didn’t really think it went anywhere, and (unlike you) she thought it did topple over into the silly side 😉


    • April 2, 2012 at 9:56 pm

      I wouldn’t recommend it to you either, it’s too far from what you usually read.
      I enjoy that kind of light reading from time to time and I suspect that one’s response to it also depends on the moment you read it.
      It’s like Gut Gegen Nordwind by Glattauer or Noi due come un romanzo by Paola Calvetti. It’s entertaining, which is what I was looking for after Get Me Out Of Here. It’s as lovely as a light film; I have The Women In Black at home exactly for the same purpose.

      It won’t be on the 22nd C classic reads list from the 21st C but a good read. You make me think I forgot to tag is a “Beach & Public Transport” book.


  3. April 2, 2012 at 5:40 am

    Reminds me a bit of The Pleasure of My Company. Another narrator who is very excessive compulsive, and is trying to get though life with all his careful rules and rituals. You might enjoy that one too!


    • April 2, 2012 at 9:57 pm

      Hello, thanks for dropping by and leaving a message.
      I’ve never heard of The Pleasure of My Company, I’ll check it out.


  4. April 2, 2012 at 5:41 am

    Augh…”obsessive compulsive.” I hate when I notice a typo a second after I hit submit. And my need to correct it is probably a bit obssessive compulsive of me! 🙂


  5. April 2, 2012 at 10:03 am

    I like the sound of it but I’m not sure how I would react to the book. I had the very unfortunate experience of dating someone with OCD. He was calculating and counting constantly. I didn’t even know at first as he had moments in which he just didn’t talk. In the car for example, I thought he was very quiet until he admitted that he had been substracting the numbers from the various number plates. Now I have to laugh but at the time it was a shock. And the relationship ended. I couldn’t be with someone who in the middle of a conversation started to count the letters on a box of cereals…
    I wonder about the style, would you compare it to Delphine de Vigan?
    I like the idea of cherishing mundane events as well.


    • April 2, 2012 at 8:02 pm

      Caroline: if you read it let us know if you have flashbacks


    • April 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      That must be quite an unsettling experience. (and it is for Seamus in the book too, I suppose, though we don’t see things through his eyes)

      I’d compare the style to Glattauer rather than to Delphine de Vigan or to Katarina Mazetti (Le mec de la tombe d’à côté)

      I was thinking about La première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules too. I think it’s important to make the best out of everyday life. Otherwise, you spend your time waiting for great moments and are often disappointed when you live them. Too much expectation kills the moment.


  6. Brian Joseph
    April 3, 2012 at 1:29 am

    Emma – Your review illustrates the point that a book with a light subject can have thought provoking themes. Based upon your comments it seems that this book digs into the idea that maybe some things that are usually treated as a neurosis might just be better looked as just the way people are. Of course it is not simple at all at all. As Carolyn noted, OCD can be very difficult syndrome for people to deal with. The line must be drawn somewhere. It sounds like Jordan tries to explore the complexity of the issue a little. I tend to really like books like this.


    • April 3, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      I like light books with unusual characters.

      Her point is that, OCD syndrome or not, you can choose to stay as you are and should not be pressed to start a therapy or take medication to act “normal”.

      I think it is a trend in our societies. We want no risk, no illness and everybody coming from the same mold.


      • April 3, 2012 at 11:12 pm

        I like that point, and I agree that it’s a trend. My parents always tell me that if I’d grown up in the 21st century instead of the 1980s, I’d have been diagnosed with something and probably put on drugs of some kind to fix it. At the time people just said I was a slightly odd child. I didn’t play much with other children, tended to be in my own world a lot or doing slightly obsessive things. I’m still not someone who fits in very well in your average social setting, but it doesn’t bother me. There are, of course, serious mental illnesses that need to be treated. But there are also a lot of people who are just not “normal”, and why should they be? Have you ever read anything by RD Laing? He does a good job of talking about normality and who gets to define it. I reviewed one of his books here if you’re interested.


        • April 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm

          Hi Andrew,

          Sorry for the slow answer.

          If you were a 21stC child, I guess your parents, fed with parenting books, would worry and see a doctor. Unless they had stopped reading parenting books as soon as you weren’t an infant anymore. That’s what we did; stop reading and rely on gut feeling.

          Anyway, when you’re a quiet child, people always wonder if you’re “normal”. I don’t know RD Laing, I’ll read your review.

          We’ve heard a lot about drugs for hyperactive children ; I read somewhere they are more used in the US than in France; I don’t know how it is in Great Britain. Here, Nicolas Sarkosy wanted to implement tests on three-year-old children (first year of pre-school) to find out the ones who could be future delinquants. Nice guy, isn’t he? He had to abandon the idea, but still, just the fact he could voice it bothers me.

          We are about the same age and when I look back on my childhood, I think lots of things were easier or less serious. I’m not saying it was always better (Seatbelts for children are definitively a plus, for example) but life seemed less organized and normed. Now I feel that companies and people fear lawsuits and try to protect themselves as best they can. So everything coming out of the safe frame is “repressed” because it’s assessed as risky.Same thing for the freedom of speech: humorists used to joke about topics they avoid nowadays.
          Now that I think of it, isn’t that the theme of On The Holloway Road?…


  7. April 7, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    I have tagged you but no need to do it if you don’t want to


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