Monday, April 27, 2020

The Tenth Muse - Catherine Chung

Summary: The first thing I remember being said of me with any consistency was that I was intelligent—and I recognized even then that it was a comment leveled at me with as much disapproval as admiration. Still, I never tried to hide or suppress my mind as some girls do, and thank God, because that would have been the beginning of the end.

From childhood, Katherine knows she is different, and that her parents are not who they seem to be. But in becoming a mathematician, she must face the most human of problems—who is she? What is the cost of love, and what is the cost of ambition?

On her quest to conquer the Riemann Hypothesis, the greatest unsolved mathematical problem of her time, she turns to a theorem with a mysterious history that holds both the lock and key to her identity, and to secrets long buried during World War II in Germany. Forced to confront some of the most consequential events of the twentieth century and rethink everything she knows of herself, she strives to take her place in the world of higher mathematics and finds kinship in the stories of the women who came before her—their love of the language of numbers connecting them across generations.

In The Tenth Muse, Catherine Chung offers a gorgeous, sweeping tale about legacy, identity, and the beautiful ways the mind can make us free.
 (Summary and pic from

My Review: This is the second book I’ve read within a few months that discussed a race between different brilliant mathematicians to find a solution to an unanswered mathematical problem. I reviewed Rachel Barenbaum’s A Bend in the Stars a few weeks ago, which took place during WWI while in the midst of the search for the Theory of Relativity. The Tenth Muse was recommended to me by a lovely lady in my book club who thought I would really like it. Imagine my surprise when the recommendation happened to be another book about mathematicians trying to find an answer to a mathematical question! It was a fun topic to revisit, especially since I enjoyed Barenbaum’s book.

There was a lot going on in this book, and a lot to discuss. There are lots and lots of issues addressed. First of all, there is the issue of the protagonist in the book, Katherine, being a woman in the field of mathematics. I think this was at the foremost of all the discussions and happenings although, believe me, there were many other issues addressed as well. Katherine is put in a situation where people don’t take her seriously because she is a woman in mathematics. Or when they do take her seriously, they feel threatened and realize they can do something about it and therefore either do things to hinder her directly, sometimes hinder her unknowingly, or try to do what they think would be best for her without asking her permission first. This was a hard read in this way—it is hard enough now to be a woman with ambitions and ideas. Things are getting bette­r­—­of course they are—and we have come a long way, but to read about such a brilliant woman who was basically denied opportunities in the past because she is a woman was really difficult. The friend who recommended the book to me said, "It’s how life is—in ways much more complex than we realize.  It’s a special connector when we open ourselves to another who has addressed or handled challenges and then shares the outcomes with us.  We get to feel our own sense of disgust and pain as we read that other’s experience; in this case, Katherine does not beat it to death—we feel it for her."  

The Tenth Muse didn’t take place that long ago, and so the fight for women’s equality in science is still a fledgling pursuit, albeit one that is hopefully gaining momentum and credibility as time goes on. I really appreciated reading about the female mathematicians that Katherine looked up to, and there were a few in particular (trying not to give spoilers here) who were seriously impressive in that they just didn’t care and did what they could to further mathematics on their terms. Women like this in all fields of study are impressive and brave, and I appreciate their efforts, not just for the obvious reason that women should have the same opportunities of men, but because if we don’t take women’s study and research and findings into considerations, we’re basically ignoring half the population and therefore limiting our own abilities to find out the answers to questions and problems of all sorts.

Another major issue addressed in the book is one of race. Katherine is of Chinese descent, and this is made more complicated by the fact that she isn’t sure of her exact lineage. This mystery unfolds more and becomes more complex as the book goes on, but being of a different race and female during this time in history would have been difficult for one who had aspirations such as Katherine did. I found this part of the story to be really complex and interesting and yet another heartbreaking thing that this woman had to address and learn to face in her life. It added more depth to the ongoing issues she faced, and therefore added a layer of complexity to each situation that went beyond her just being female.

I am no mathematician, so if you have been reading this review and are worried about whether you would be able to understand what is going on or not, I assure you that you will. There were mathematical terms I was unfamiliar with, of course, but this did not confuse me or make me unable to understand what was going on in the story. The math aspect of this book is simply the vehicle that is used to address so many other topics.

If you are into historical fiction with strong female characters, especially ones who are facing career choices in careers that are not “traditionally” female, I recommend this book. I think it would be a good book club read as well. I wish that I had had the opportunity to discuss it with my lovely book club ladies. Alas, there weren’t enough copies for all of us so we read another book (that we also enjoyed). However, I hope you get the chance to read it with your book club and have a great discussion!

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some mild language and mild sexual content.

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