The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
Publisher: Ecco, 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
In this coming-of-age story, we see a young girl named Katherine grow up to become a well-respected mathematician with a fascination for all things numbers and a special interest in the famous Riemann hypothesis.
As she pursues a career in mathematics, she is forced to question and evaluate her identity. Growing up in the 1950s, she studies in a male-dominated field where she feels she must learn how to fit in when she can’t help but stand out. Hoping to find her biological parents for answers about who she really is, she uncovers a complicated, tangled family history that seems to raise more questions than answers.
Katherine learns to rethink her identity as she discovers beautiful mathematics as well as chilling stories of the women who came before her.
Before I begin, I do have a confession: I am a bit of a math nerd. Going against the stereotype that English majors fear and despise numbers, I actually enjoy learning theorems and even took a few college mathematics courses despite my academic advisor’s confusion and explanation that the classes wouldn’t help me graduate.
Because of my love for numbers and logic, I really adored Catherine Chung’s well-researched novel about a young mathematician. The book contains quite a few hidden math gems such as a variation of the Gauss addition story, the Königsberg bridge problem, and several references to historical mathematicians and scientists. That being said, you don’t have to love math to appreciate Chung’s beautiful novel that explores identity, family history, and legacy.
Since the theorems and math references are written about in more of a metaphorical way than a technical manner, the book makes imagining the experience of a young woman trying to find her place in the world of mathematics accessible to a wider reading audience.
The main character, Katherine, grows up with the understanding that she is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and World War II American veteran. However, she soon learns that her family history is much more complicated than her parents once claimed. This, in addition to the realization that some people questioned her place in mathematics, forces her to redefine her identity and learn to make a contribution to mathematics—for herself, and by herself.
It’s a beautiful novel that examines what it means to truly know yourself and act independently of societal expectations, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of historical or bildungsroman fiction.
If you are, in fact, a math nerd like me, you can learn more about the Riemann hypothesis, which Katherine attempts to tackle in the book, in the video below.
Thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.