In a single sitting, I read 122 pages without stopping. Chung’s writing flows so easily and the story continues so effortlessly that you are pulled gently through each chapter and taken through the pages without any hesitation whatsoever. It’s incredibly calming, in a way, to sail through a book without struggling against the sentence structure or vernacular.
To the story: I’m hooked. I hadn’t quite realized that this is historical fiction* until I got deeper into the book. Regardless, Chung breathes life into Katherine, a mathematics prodigy, and follows her acutely throughout her life and career. Daughter to a woman she has never met and a father who sees only the handicap of her gender, Katherine struggles with her own isolation, identity, and success as a woman in the field of mathematics.
Now, I’m certainly not one for math. (I’m an arts student for goodness sake!) A lot of the jargon relating to mathematical hypotheses, formulae, and theory go clear over my head, but Chung does not present these ideas in a pedantic and demeaning way. To Katherine, all of these numbers and strings make sense, and Chung writes as such. Do not fear being lost in the tide of mathematical jumble and controversy; these postulations are not heavily dwelled on without giving a little meaning away.
The struggles, both internal and external, that Katherine experiences are breathtaking. Internally, she deals with her own identity and history: she doesn’t know her true mother, has been abandoned by the only mom she has ever known, and is struggling to understand her place in the chaos of the world. Externally, she fights against the gender politics that control the field of mathematics and the relationships she creates with her colleagues.
Thusfar, The Tenth Muse is a beautifully written, elegantly formulated novel about one woman’s quest to give herself (and the women who came before her) a voice and a place in history. Set against the backdrop of the misogyny of the twentieth (and later, twenty-first) century, Chung brings a new perspective to a largely male-dominated field and reminds us that women can (and will) do anything that men do.
Echoing the modern themes of “Women in STEM,” Catherine Chung illustrates Katherine’s life as she pushes back against society’s expectations of her and women like her and her deeper attempts to answer the most human question of all—who is she?
*A note, now that I have finished the book: This book is an amalgam of fiction and nonfiction. Several of the mathematical theories proposed are, in fact, real theories. Many of the mathematicians themselves are also real people. Katherine, however, is not. The Mohanty Problem, too, is not a real mathematical hypothesis/problem. Click here to read the entirety of my Goodreads review.