Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is one of those rare novelists who can weave incredibly complex intellectual ideas into fictional narratives. As is often the case with such books (it's also true of The Housekeeper and the Professor, and 7 Types of Ambiguity), the ideas are slightly more compelling that the fictional narrative, to me at least, but in 36 Arguments the story definitely gives the ideas a run for their money. The characters are wonderfully vivid and lifelike, particularly the women. But the various narrative strands - while quite interesting - don't quite coalesce as strongly as one might like. And you do get a 20 page long segment of philosophical debate a la Ayn Rand, though it's a compelling debate at least. Still, it's an impressive novel, particularly in its timeliness - I honestly can't recall ever reading a book that was so clearly written for this particular moment in time, and that captured current issues so insightfully.
The central character of the book is a guy named Cass, who has just achieved huge professional success with a book on atheism. The appendix, which contains 36 arguments for the existence of God and refutations of them, is included in the end of this novel. My mom thought it was unnecessary, but I was quite impressed by it. It's an impressive academic work, definitely on the dry side, but very interesting. In general, I don't know that I've ever read a more persuasiveand sympathetic argument for atheism. I read the appendix after finishing the first chapter of the book, which I think was a good way to go about it, timing wise - there are references to it later, and it's nice to have it all clear in your mind. But it's also not necessary reading, unless you're really interested in atheism as a philosophical/psychological problem. I do think that reading it enhances your experience of the novel though.
Anyhow - so that's one piece, Cass the successful atheist and his academic career. Then there's his girlfriend Lucinda, also an academic, whose career has suffered a blow, and who is rather bitter about it. I thought her character was especially well done, in that she's just barely likeable, but remains kind of human and understandable. Then there's Cass' past, particularly his encounters with a former teacher, who is a kind of religious... figure. Hard to describe, but very well captured. And his fellow students, and an ex-girlfriend, also well done - annoying at times but highly lovable. Then there is a Hasidic shtetl and a young mathematical prodigy there. Which is thrilling and has some marvelous scenes that bring together math and religion in really fascinating ways, but otherwise kind of peters out.
Overall though, a really interesting work, with a thoughtful interlacing of religion, math, and love - I suspect I'll find myself returning to it mentally.