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.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?
In The Tenth Muse, Catherine Chung offers a gorgeous, sweeping tale about legacy, identity, and the beautiful ways the mind can make us free.
Something in my chest that had begun to uncoil days after I read this book seized up again while I wrote this review, as quickly as if someone had held a light to kindling. There’s a wordless agony to reading stories about women who wanted more freedom than the world wished to give a woman. I often felt myself running with a swift, clear rage—the feeling like the blast of fire rising up a dragon’s throat, leaving my mouth tasting of ash. But a thrum of awe still fills me, along with an unexpectedly sweet surge of hope, in spite of all the coursing anger, knowing that—although cast out, ostracized and dispossessed—the bolt of these women’s triumph always slid home.
“All my life I’ve been told to let go as gracefully as possible. What’s worse, after all, than a hungry woman, greedy for all that isn’t meant to be hers? Still, I resist. In the end we relinquish everything: I think I’ll hold on, while I can.”
Forceful, cerebral and immaculately controlled, “The Tenth Muse” is a dazzling portrait of a young woman who refused to fit the shape of the small space the world left for her.
Katherine had shone brighter, by a great deal, than was normally permitted a woman. The Riemann hypothesis was the mystery that had opened her mind like a door, and she has never doubted that the path to it would one day open, stark and clear before her feet. Katherine’s desire to come out on top was born out of the conviction that she didn’t have to be her opponents’ equal to be considered a worthy contender—she had to be better. But in her obsession with cracking the uncrackable equation, an underlying crisis emerges: young and drifting, Katherine is searching for identity, and answers to the tragedy that had ruptured her family forever.
From its first sentence, “The Tenth Muse” grabs the reader with its directness and earnestness. “I suppose I should warn you that I tell a story like a woman,” Katherine begins, “looping into myself, interrupting.” Thus, standing knee-deep in the rubble of her life, Katherine starts delicately piecing it back together, losing her footing and slipping, but rising every time to scrabble forward—one last lamp shining down on the unmarred pages—toward the realization that only at the end of one’s life can one look back and see lucidly the prices they paid along the way.
Katherine chronicles her own tale, and the novel spasms with her remembrance like synapses firing in the dark. The novel spans a number of difficult decades and Katherine’s memories are seized up, measured and weighted: her mother’s face, glossy with joy, beaming through her haze, and her subsequent absence, like having a rib wrenched from her side; the lovers she naïvely refused to see anything about except their most engaging qualities which she then cultivated and magnified to the exclusion of all their less desirable ones; the male colleagues who had made the mistake of believing her discomfort would be like theirs; her works, validated and stolen in one fell swoop; the loss of her brilliance, the withering of her grace, all the things that had to be worked and learned through errors and trials, and above all, her indigence over inequality, the plight of women in the world, and the madness that rose from a new creeping certainty: that there is only so much forcing of the world a woman can do.
Katherine stains the page with herself, and the tone of her voice, urgent yet measured, gives the impression that she is unburdening herself to a patient and sympathetic interviewer. The result is a profoundly searching book—one that could potentially be frustrating for readers who require propulsive plots and clean resolutions, as it offers neither. Still, Chung makes it work beautifully by impeccably building a sense of inexorable apprehension as we begin to discern elements of self-deception and omission in Katherine’s narration, and secrets swell to bursting with world-shaking promise.
As the novel probes the secrets and lies that thrum beneath the surface of Katherine’s family, The Tenth Muse demonstrates, heartbreakingly, how acts of brutality—even those distant in time and geography—cast a dark shadow over relationships. Through Katherine’s voice, The Tenth Muse also explores the cold outer limits of ambition, and each word falls sharp, like a butcher cutting meat. (“Don’t you know the rule,” they said, “that the price of your dearest wish is always everything you have?”) Katherine’s want, hard and spare, took hold of her, driving out the fears, the ones people tried to give her, tried to put into her heart with dark looks and patronizing smiles. But Katherine not only navigates her gender in a male-dominated field—she navigates her mixed race as well. Ethnicity, gender—these things don’t matter until they do, and it’s as exquisitely articulated as anything this thoughtful author has put to the page.
The central message of Katherine’s character arc is one that I should’ve seen coming, but didn’t and felt fear in me, gleaming like water, when I finally realized the author’s goals for her. That said, The Tenth Muse isn’t all grim. The heart is always able to beat with a new rhythm and this sentiment is core to the novel. I won’t dare spoil the context, but the final words spoken still shudder through my mind: “in the end, we can only unlock our own locks, we have only the gift of ourselves.”