A Doubter's Almanac

A Doubter's Almanac

by Ethan Canin


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this mesmerizing novel, Ethan Canin, the author of America America and The Palace Thief, explores the nature of genius, rivalry, ambition, and love among multiple generations of a gifted family.

Milo Andret is born with an unusual mind. A lonely child growing up in the woods of northern Michigan in the 1950s, he gives little thought to his own talent. But with his acceptance at U.C. Berkeley he realizes the extent, and the risks, of his singular gifts. California in the seventies is a seduction, opening Milo’s eyes to the allure of both ambition and indulgence. The research he begins there will make him a legend; the woman he meets there—and the rival he meets alongside her—will haunt him for the rest of his life. For Milo’s brilliance is entwined with a dark need that soon grows to threaten his work, his family, even his existence.

Spanning seven decades as it moves from California to Princeton to the Midwest to New York, A Doubter’s Almanac tells the story of a family as it explores the way ambition lives alongside destructiveness, obsession alongside torment, love alongside grief. It is a story of how the flame of genius both lights and scorches every generation it touches. Graced by stunning prose and brilliant storytelling, A Doubter’s Almanac is a surprising, suspenseful, and deeply moving novel, a major work by a writer who has been hailed as “the most mature and accomplished novelist of his generation.”

Praise for A Doubter’s Almanac

“551 pages of bliss . . . devastating and wonderful . . . dazzling . . . You come away from the book wanting to reevaluate your choices and your relationships. It’s a rare book that can do that, and it’s a rare joy to discover such a book.”Esquire

“[Canin] is at the top of his form, fluent, immersive, confident. You might not know where he’s taking you, but the characters are so vivid, Hans’s voice rendered so precisely, that it’s impossible not to trust in the story. . . . The delicate networks of emotion and connection that make up a family are illuminated, as if by magic, via his prose.”Slate

“Alternately explosive and deeply interior.”New York (“Eight Books You Need to Read”)

“A blazingly intelligent novel.”—Los Angeles Times

“[A] beautifully written novel.”The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812980264
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 375,374
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Ethan Canin is the author of seven books, including the story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief and the novels For Kings and Planets, Carry Me Across the Water, and America America. He is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and divides his time between Iowa and northern Michigan.


Iowa City, IA

Date of Birth:

July 19, 1960

Place of Birth:

Ann Arbor, MI


A.B., Stanford, 1982; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1984; M.D., Harvard Medical School, 1991

Read an Excerpt

A Late Arrival

From the kitchen window, Milo Andret watched the bridge over the creek, and when he saw Earl Biettermann's white Citroën race across the span he hurried out the door and picked up a short hoe. Biettermann was driving too fast. Reckless was the word for it—but that's the way he'd always been. Arrogant. Heedless. Lucky to stumble onto the right roads, the right career, the right woman. Lucky even to be alive. For any other driver, the route from the bridge to the cabin would take five minutes: Andret figured it would take Biettermann three.

Outside under the trees, he crossed as quickly as he could toward the garden, his feet today somehow obeying his commands. Next to the strawberries he lowered himself into the folding chair and used the coiled hose to dash a few palmfuls of water onto his shirt and hair. The sun was high. He ought to be sweating.

He heard the car throw gravel as it made the turn into the driveway. Then the engine shut off. A fan came on the way it did in French cars. Biettermann probably loved that fan. One door slam. Andret waited.

Then, a second.

He let them knock at the door to the cabin. His name called: "Professor! Professor!" This was an affectation. Then steps on the cluttered path to the back of the house, where he was bent low over the plants, pulling strenuously at the roots of a marauding false grape.

"Professor Andret!"

He turned to offer his greeting, squinting, wiping the spigot water from his brow. A shock: Earl Biettermann was in a wheelchair. He realized he'd heard something about that. From her, maybe?

He couldn't remember.

She was here, though—that was the important thing—and now she was guiding her husband in a wheelchair, pushing him in front of her across the bumpy ground like an offering. It could have been awful: but he saw immediately that it wasn't going to be.

He also realized with a start that she'd been the one driving.


Milo Andret grew up in northern Michigan, near Cheboygan, on the western edge of Lake Huron, where the offshore waters were fathomless and dark. The color of the lake there was closer to the stormy Atlantic hues of Lake Superior than to the tranquil, layered turquoise of Lake Michigan, which lapped at the tourist beaches on the far side of the state. Milo's father had been an officer in the navy during the Second World War, a destroyer's navigator driven by the hope of one day commanding his own ship; but at the age of twenty-four, after an incident in the Solomon Sea, he'd abandoned his ambitions. The incident had occurred in November 1943, just a year before Milo was born. Coming north out of the straits near Bougainville Island, the destroyer had been hit by a string of Japanese torpedoes, and in the wake of the explosions the ship's life rafts had drifted into unknown waters. Milo's father and another sailor had managed to get aboard one of the rafts, and before nightfall they'd picked up two more men. A week later, though, when a British cruiser finally sighted them off of Papua New Guinea, all but Milo's father had been eaten by sharks.

By the time Milo was born, his father had been discharged back to Cheboygan, where he'd found work as a science teacher at Near Isle High School. It was a position from which, for the next thirty-nine years, he would neither be offered a promotion nor seek one.

Milo's mother had been the first female summa cum laude chemistry major in the history of Michigan State University; but she too was willing to forsake her ambitions. She raised Milo until he was old enough to go to school, and then she found a job as a secretary in the sheriff's department in Alpena, the county seat. In Alpena, she typed reports, brewed coffee, and made mild banter with a generally courteous group of men several years her senior, more than one of whom could neither read nor write.

This was most of what Milo knew of the lives of his parents.

After school his father graded homework in his office, and after work his mother sometimes stepped out for a drink with a few of the other secretaries from her building. On most afternoons, Milo walked up the hill from the bus stop to an empty house. By now it was the mid-1950s.

In those days Cheboygan was already something of a resort town, although Milo didn't realize this fact until he was older. For most of his childhood, he knew only the deep woods that ran behind their property—350 acres of sugar maple, beech, and evergreen that had managed to remain unlogged during the huge timber harvests that had denuded much of the rest of the state. He spent a good part of his days inside this forest. The soil there was padded with a layer of decaying leaves and needles whose scents mingled to form a cool spice in his nose. He didn't notice the smell when he was in it so much as feel its absence when he wasn't. School, home, any building he had to spend time in—they all left him with the feeling that something had been cleaned away.

The shaded hollows of his particular tract were populated by raccoons, skunks, opossum, and owls, and by the occasional fox or porcupine. The small meadows were ringed with ancient birches that crashed to the ground when the younger trees crowded them out, their fallen, crisscrossed trunks making shelters and bridges for him to discover. The woods were in transition, his father had told him. When a great tree came down, the report could be heard for miles, a shifting crescendo of rustling and snapping as the trunk yanked away the limbs around it, culminating finally in a muffled thud like a sledgehammer striking moss. Whenever this occurred, Milo would set out to find the corpse. He had an intricate memory of the landscape's light and shade and could tell instantly when even a small piece of it had been altered. Something in his brain picked up disturbance acutely.

How many hours he spent in those woods! He was an only child and from early in his life had invented solitary games—long treks into the landscape with certain self-imposed rules (two right turns to every left, exactly a thousand steps from departure to return, the winding brook crossed only where it bent to the west). These games passed the most precious part of the day for him, the too-short interlude between the time the school bus released him at the bottom of the hill and six o'clock, when his mother came out to the edge of the woods holding the lid of a garbage can and banged it three times with a broom handle to call him for dinner.

The Andrets lived fifteen miles from the beaches on Lake Huron; but it might as well have been a hundred. His father stayed to the land in a part of the state where everyone else was drawn to the water. This was no doubt attributable to his experience in the Solomon Sea, but Milo was too young to understand something like that. On weekends his father went hunting with his friends or tinkered around the house, or if the weather was poor he sat in a chair by the fire and worked puzzles from a magazine. In the Andret family, there was never any question of shared recreation—no canoe trips, no bicycle rides, no walks together at the shore. Such dalliances were from another universe. There were no pets, either, and no games other than a couple of boxes of playing cards and an old chess set of Philippine ivory that had been brought back from the navy. If Mr. Andret was at home, he was either grading schoolwork or performing household repairs, walking around with a tool belt and setting a ladder against the eaves. He would finish one job and move on to the next, never alerting anyone to what he was doing. If his mother was there, she was in the kitchen, at the small table by the window, with a glass and a book. If Milo wasn't at school, he was in the woods.

The Andret house was an old-fashioned, darkly painted, thoroughly ornamented Victorian that had been built by a prosperous farmer at the turn of the century, as though it would one day sit on the main square of a town. It was three stories high with a steeply raftered roof whose scalloped tiles radiated a statuesque formality. But to Milo there was always something disappointing about this formality. From the time he was young it had seemed forlorn to him, like a woman in a ball gown sitting at a bus stop. (This wasn't his own phrase; it was his wife's, uttered many years later, when she first crested the hill.) The walls were an evening blue, both inside and out, and the exterior trim was a deep maroon. Everything a shade too dark. There was a sidewalk in front, but it ended at the property stake. A brass mailbox stood on a post at the head of the driveway, and an exactingly painted garage looked out from buttressed eaves at the rear. The property boasted all the details of a fine residence in a fine little town, except for the town itself, which had never appeared.

The Andrets' house was the only one for miles.

Reading Group Guide

1. A Doubter’s Almanac is a book about genius and math, but also a book about families—­the Andret family specifically. What was your reaction at the beginning of Part Two when you realized that Milo’s son, Hans, had been narrating the book?

2. When Hans introduces his mother, he says: “How can I describe her? She was a creature who lived to serve others. If that is the criterion one uses for loveliness, then my mother was the paragon of loveliness.” In what ways does Helena Pierce serve her family? Do you think she passes that quality of service down to Hans and Paulie? In what ways does Milo serve his family?

3. The woods, and the act of being in the woods, come up often throughout the book, especially for Milo. What do you think being in the woods does for Milo that a normal life in the city couldn’t?

4. In Part One, Milo goes back to the woods in Michigan when he finds out that the teenage Kopter found a proof that he couldn’t. In what ways is this retreat to the woods similar to his purchasing the cabin in Part Two and in what ways is it different?

5. “Mathematics is like carving a wooden doll, and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll. In fact, this is exactly how you will know whether your wooden doll is alive. If it yields another wooden doll.” Hans states that these words of his father have stayed with him all his life. What do you think these words mean about mathematics? What might they mean about family? Do you think Milo actually understands what he’s trying to say?

6. Think about Milo and Paulie’s relationship, especially compared with the relationship between Milo and Hans. Do you think ­Paulie truly loves her father? Do you think Milo loves her?

7. Discuss Cle Wells Biettermann. What is her true role in Milo’s life? Whom do you think he loves more, Cle or Helena?

8. Dr. Gandapur, the elderly Jesuit who takes care of Milo as he is dying, appears like a guardian angel in his life. What role do you think Dr. Gandapur plays for Milo? What role does he play for the rest of the family?

9. “Women are the suns, you know. Men are just the moons.” What do you think Milo means by this? What do you think is Hans’s reaction to his father’s words?

10. How are Milo and Hans alike? How are they different? What does this mean for their families—­their wives and children?

11. Think about the final chapter, “The Battle of Trafalgar.” How did you feel when you read this chapter? Did it change your opinion of Milo? Of the family’s relationships?

12. During “the Battle of Trafalgar,” Hans quotes from Admiral Lord Nelson: “ ‘To him I resign myself,’ I said, glancing to the heavens. ‘And the just cause which is entrusted to me.’ ” Do you think Hans is thinking about his father when he says those words? What might be the “just cause” to which Hans has entrusted himself? Do you think he has carried on this just cause?

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