A Universe of Sufficient Size: family, history and survival

A Universe of Sufficient size book review

What is this about?: A family coming to terms with each other, and their history — one they’re only just finding out in the wake of their father/grandfather’s death.

What else is this about?: Survival — during the war, and the lengths people had to go through.


I have wished so many times that I had acted differently.
I wish that I had been more worthy of you…
Eventually the war will end, and then we will find each other.

Until then, remember me.

Budapest, 1938. In a city park, five young Jewish mathematicians gather to share ideas, trade proofs and whisper sedition.

Sydney, 2007. Illy has just buried her father, a violent, unpredictable man whose bitterness she never understood. And now Illy’s mother has gifted her a curious notebook, its pages a mix of personal story and mathematical discovery, recounted by a woman full of hopes and regrets.

Inspired by a true story, Miriam Sved’s beautifully crafted novel charts a course through both the light and dark of human relationships: a vivid recreation of 1930s Hungary, a decades-old mystery locked in the story of one enduring friendship, a tribute to the selfless power of the heart.

A Universe of Sufficient Size is the story of a family in the wake of their father/grandfather’s death. I think the man who died was loved as much as his family has to love a father or grandfather, but his bitterness eroded so much of that, so when the book opens, Illy and her mother are poles apart, used to walking on eggshells around him — and as things happen in situations like this, they moved further and further apart from each other. 

There are two timelines in this book: one that takes readers back to Hungary, just before the way starts in earnest, and one that remains in Sydney in 2007.

The Hungarian timeline revolves around the group of mathematicians, ones who revel in the beauty of math as much as they are working to figure out how to use it to take them away from Europe and Hitler. Eszter is a young woman, a mathematician, who we follow through this timeline. She is firm friends with Ildiko, a mathematician like herself who she has known since they were in school together.

Together, they are friends with several other mathematicians in their group (males) and their group somehow revolves around Pali, a young, rich mathematician who seemingly has no idea of the realities of life in a city that is increasingly being affected by Germany. Pali is the kind of head-in-maths sort of genius, who people generally take care of but he in turn isn’t capable of taking care of anyone else. He’s that sort of genius.

He may also afford the group a way out of Hungary…

… in Sydney in 2007, Illy (named for Ildiko) begins to find her well ordered world, where her kids are concerned at least to fracture — Zoe, her daughter, tells her about her open relationship with Sal, and Josh, a genius at maths who wants to drop out of university. Illy doesn’t know how to reach them, and that in part I think stems from a father who was bitter and forced her to control her emotions lest he lose his shit. 

Things begin to change unexpectedly, when her mother leaves her a notebook, a journal of her life in Hungary (which is what the past timeline is). The journal affords her insight into her mother’s life in Hungary, her relationships with her friends and manages to confuse her more so about her mother and father.

Unbeknownst to her, her mother agrees to fund an idea of Josh’s, if he takes her to see a visiting mathematician — Pali, who she worked hard to protect in Hungary all those years ago. Josh becomes convinced he might be his real grandfather, but the reality — the truth when it all comes out is very different to what anyone expects. It also illuminates the strength of her mother, the risks she took and what she gave up to leave Europe. 

A Universe of Sufficient Size is a story of survival and the bonds of family, and those bonds that are just as strong as family ones.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.