Catherine Chung’s Realm of Math and Mystery
Though personally back in school I had a fondness for mathematics, I would wager the same cannot be said for many of you. A notoriously off-putting academic subject for children, the ones excelling in it were far and few in-between. While this may sound a tad optimistic, I believe there are two ways of exploring the realm of mathematics. One is through pure numbers, equations and calculations, as we would have done in school. The second way is performed through more of an artistic lens, which is precisely the approach Catherine Chung adopted in her second novel, The Tenth Muse.
The book begins in the 1950s and 60s, following the story of Katherine, a young woman who was always different from the rest of her Midwest community in multiple ways. First of all, she was a brilliant girl with an exceptional penchant for mathematics. Second of all, she was clearly of Asian descent and her parents were adoptive.
Thus Katherine begins her great search for personal answers, first by trying to establish her own personal foothold in the realm of mathematics, one dominated by men from top to bottom. She travels the world in pursuit of her ambitions, notably heading to Germany, and even attempts to conquer notoriously unsolvable math equations. At the same time, she does all she can to inch herself closer to resolving her personal mystery as to who her real parents are. The more she digs, the more it becomes apparent all the answers she seeks lay buried beneath the soil of the Second World War, and will likely force her to rethink quite a few things about who she is and where she belongs in this world.
A New Perspective on Math in The Tenth Muse
While I did mention having a certain liking for mathematics as a kid in school, what I didn’t add is how it eventually evaporated in my late teens. As of today, while I don’t shy away from mathematics, I still don’t appreciate when they feature too heavily in my literature. For this reason, I was obviously reluctant to start reading this book, but for those of you with the same predisposition as me, let me assure you, those worries are attended to in the best manner possible.
Now, with our main character being a mathematician and trying to develop her career in the domain, there is no escaping the fact we have to deal with a few theorems and equations along the way. This is where I have to applaud the author, as she managed to make these parts far from boring. Rather than simply presenting us with definitions and equations, she takes a more romanticized approach and displays it as some form of art. She even often takes the time to link these theorems and general pursuits to the real world and how they actually impact it. I think this approach really helps build up an appreciation for mathematics and what they do for our civilization, even if personally we might despise them.
The world of academic mathematics is also a rather interesting one with a lot more competitiveness than I would have anticipated at first. Chung takes us fairly deep into it and it shows she has a lot of personal experience in this domain. The small details about the complex interpersonal relations in this world all come together to form a memorable image of how even those who pursue knowledge at the highest levels fall prey to the same petty thinking as the rest of us.
Of Family and Heritage
From what I’ve been saying so far, it would be easy to think this novel is largely about mathematics and nothing else. In reality, Katherine’s search for her real parents take about as much importance as anything else you might think of in the story, becoming increasingly prominent as we move into the later chapters and she begins travelling the world. As a matter of fact, I would be more inclined to classify this as a mystery novel above anything, if only one category had to be picked.
Katherine’s hunt for her family is engrossing in its own right, dragging us along from one small clue to the next one, leaving us to wonder how it all connects or where we might eventually end up. While I did find the whole family saga got a tad complex as we got closer to the full picture, it wasn’t to the point where it was impossible to discern how the threads linked together… but it could have likely been simpler without hurting the rest of the novel. There are so many lies and secrets in Katherine’s family they became the norm over the truth, and while some people aren’t entirely for this sort of saturation, I find it enjoyable not to have a reliable source of truth in front of my eyes.
Katherine herself, undoubtedly a reflection of the author, is an interesting protagonist with enough character to carry the story from start to finish. Her wit and intelligence place her above most of her peers, but she never feels too arrogant, patronizing or dismissive, as many intelligent characters are portrayed these days. Instead she feels like a down-to-Earth woman desperately trying to find her identity in the confusing world after WWII. As we become acquainted with Katherine’s experiences, both positive and negative, a certain bond forms between reader and writer, which is definitely not something I can say for every book.
The Final Verdict
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung is a very curious novel with some very unique offerings. The author’s take on mathematics and the way they are weaved into the story is simply masterful, and the mystery of the protagonist’s real parents is a strong hook and driving force throughout. I highly recommend this novel to fans of history and family saga novels with mathematical elements thrown in.
Catherine Chung is a Korean-American writer born in Illinois, with her first published novel, Forgotten Country, earning an Honourable Mention for the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award. She also has a degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago, an MFA at Cornell University, and has worked at a think tank in Santa Monica.