The readers who will love this book—count me among them—delight in walking on paths that branch without a defined destination. They are not perturbed by offshoots that others might call digressions but instead feel themselves to be held in trustworthy hands that will not leave them stranded ... The lives, the seeds, the principles are what inform this unusual and original book ... Figuring is an inspiriting book. Popova stands on the side of a truth that cannot be found in conventional linear narratives ... Figuring is entirely a creative act. We are not left stranded ... The many lines of Figuring gather together not in resolution but in lyricism.
An intricate tapestry in which the lives of these women, and dozens of other scientific and literary figures, are woven together through threads of connection across four centuries, linking one to another in unexpected chains through mutual friends, serendipity, meetings, letters and even lovers. It is as if in her vast reading of source materials, especially original correspondence, she has fitted her brain with a set of filters to sift out references that might link any of her figures to any other. One is reminded of the 18th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher’s declaration: 'The world is bound by secret knots' ... In Figuring, we are thrust into a waltz of exquisitely honed minds—most of them belonging to women, many of them sexually queer—all insisting on living to their fullest.
Her first book is...a highly original survey of life, love and creativity; an intellectual odyssey that challenges easy categorisation. It interweaves the 'invisible connections' between pioneering scientists, artists and writers—many of them gay women—to create a richly patterned tapestry of ideas and biographies ... Popova writes beautifully, translating abstractions into sensuous, evocative subjects, turning history and science into symphonic prose poetry ... At more than 500 pages, Figuring is perhaps overlong: but as Popova notes at the end, this is the distillation of a lifetime’s reading on science, the arts and biography ... To read Figuring is to be immersed in a gloriously ambitious symphony of ideas[.]
... strange and lovely ... Generally [the book] proceeds through a series of surprising links, fascinating diversions and sometimes dizzying associative drift. When the connections cohere, it’s like carefully constructed fiction ... Sometimes the crisscrossing of lives, loves and ideas is confusing but still true to life in its mess and its drama. Other connections point away from the story at hand but create a sense of immersion in the world in which these brilliant people wandered ... At times, though, the detours are distracting ... There is beautiful writing in Figuring, inspired by Popova’s obvious love for words. But sometimes it obscures her meaning ... Popova’s words do enough by themselves.
Time and again [Popova's] nimble mind and deep intellectual curiosity make those connections plausible and compelling ... In describing the often frustrating courses of their personal—and especially romantic—lives, Popova exposes the tension between mundane human existence and the unrelenting demands of great science and art ... Popova’s own mellifluous prose enhances her discussion of even the most arcane topics. She draws extensive quotations from primary sources, allowing her subjects to speak at length in their often eloquent, always fascinating voices. Figuring invites the reader to engage with complex ideas and challenging personalities, unearthing a wealth of material for further reflection along the way.
The choice of the verb 'composed' is apposite here because this indefinable book often reads like the poetry which means so much to Popova’s heroes while themes and motifs return as in music with renewed beauty and meaning. Figuring begins with a prelude and unrolls like a poem—chapter zero is a sustained incantation ... And then thrillingly as in a novel, the second chapter flings us into a seventeenth century carriage with Johannes Kepler ... Like Popova, these characters love poetry as much as they love mathematics. Popova beautifully closes the artificial gap that has arisen over the years between the two disciplines ... Although it is impossible to cover the multiplicity of the themes and stories here, love is a central theme, particularly the love of women for other women.
Exhilarating and omnivorous ... [a] passionate and erudite pursuit of truth and beauty ... Popova presents uniquely discerning and strikingly candid interpretations of her subjects’ writings, private and published, and profiles their family, lovers, and peers ... Writing with an ardor for language and musing on chance, affinity, and our fear of change, Popova constructs an intricate biographical cosmos that is intellectually scintillating, artistically wondrous, and deeply affecting.
Throughout her complex, consistently stimulating narrative, the author blends biography, cultural criticism, and journalism to forge elegant connections: Dickinson feeds in to Carson, who looks back to Mitchell, who looks forward to Popova herself, and with plenty of milestones along the way: Kepler, Goethe, Pauli, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne ... A lyrical work of intellectual history, one that Popova’s many followers will await eagerly and that deserves to win her many more.