Review by E. Kirshe
I try to write very thoughtful reviews about very thoughtful books, and I will, but I’ll let you know right away that Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse was excellent. Don’t waste time here, go read it.
Filled with lovely prose, The Tenth Muse manages to remain an intimate story while going through a sweeping history- we encounter many of the major events of the twentieth century through our protagonist Katherine.
The book follows Katherine, a mathematician, from her 1950s childhood through her years of school and work as one of the only women in her field. Her quest to solve the Riemann hypothesis takes us through to the end of her career.
As with most stories relating to women fighting for their piece of the world I was often inspired and then angry. Much like the real-world women of math and science who appear throughout the book (some anecdotally, some make a cameo appearance in the story) Katherine is often punished for being both clever and ambitious.
Reflecting on her undergrad experience Katherine thinks, “I had learned that if I waited to be called on, my turn would never come,” which fairly sums up how she fights to show what should be her undeniable worth and skill throughout the book.
I hope no non-math people were lost by Katherine’s title of ‘mathematician’. The plot about identity and firmly placing yourself in the world are gold, but even the way Chung passionately writes about math held me in rapt attention. While Chung has a degree in mathematics, I do not, and yet I enjoyed every instance of Chung’s, and by extension Katherine’s, love of the challenge but also the beauty of mathematics.
“My mother never instilled in me a sense of family history or tradition, but she did give me a reverence, an awe for nature– and the belief that I could get closer to it by learning how it worked.”
The way that Chung marvels at the power of science and math in describing the natural world entranced me. By using Katherine’s journey of identity Chung also lends that power a warmth that I don’t usually see, as it is so personal.
Though I won’t go so far as to call it a perfect book, The Tenth Muse is a very satisfying and overall excellent read. It gave me a lot to think on as well as be inspired by (I’m writing this review on my break from an internet rabbit hole of women mathematicians) and I was very disappointed when it was over.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
The Tenth Muse is available from Ecco now.