The Tenth Muse
I found The Tenth Muse on a buzz book list featuring the best upcoming books for 2019. When I looked it up on Goodreads for more information, I saw that a friend of mine had already ranked it with 5 stars. Now this friend has impeccable taste and is hella stingy with her stars. So I picked up the book as quickly as I could and I was not disappointed.
The Tenth Muse is the story of Katherine and her dream to conquer one of the greatest unsolved, unsolvable math problems of all time: the Riemann Hypothesis. Now, let me stop here and say that this is not a book about mathematics; it is a book in which the subject of mathematics is used as a lens to look at topics far more poignant and pressing: prejudice, family, gender, and secrets. Katherine’s father is white, her mother is Chinese, and the residents of their mostly white small town don’t let Katherine’s family forget that they’re deemed “different.” Katherine is bright, talented, and has a thirst for knowledge that just cannot be quenched. She goes to university to study mathematics and begins her struggle with the Reimann Hypothesis.
Along the way she has familiar struggles: she gets hurt by friends who turn out to be jerks and she falls for her mentor/thesis advisor. She also discovers the truth about her family’s past and the mysteries of the notebook filled with mathematical scrawlings that her father gave to her when she was young. Through mathematics, Katherine learns who she is and, more importantly, just what she is capable of.
Now, I was alright at math in school, but there is no way that I understand some of the theorems that Katherine and her colleagues come up with in this book. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make the writing any less beautiful or the story any less compelling. There is also a handy afterword that explains which theories are legitimate and which ones the author made up for the book.
The title, The Tenth Muse, is explained at the very opening of the book, and it is exquisite. Chung tells the myth of nine muses in Greek mythology but she explains how there’s a tenth, as well – a human woman who is born again in every generation: Sappho, Scheherazade, Virginia Woolf, and perhaps Katherine herself? The muses were powerful entities of inspiration and champions of the arts in Ancient Greece. Katherine, too, is an unstoppable force of intellectual prowess and talent, but she is also a woman living through the restrictive 60s and 70s.
The time setting of the book helps Chung explore societal prejudices. Not only does Katherine have to ignore probing questions about “where she’s from” but she is also a woman in the man’s world of academia, in the field of mathematics dominated by men. There were woman mathematicians before her and they did great things, but Katherine is determined to be even greater, no matter the odds (and trust me, every obstacle that could be hurled at Katherine does get hurled at her).
It was Chung’s writing that made me say things like “who knew a book about math could be so damn beautiful,” and I could not mean that more. Each word is well-chosen and beautifully placed into sentences that make setting spring to life before your eyes. I truly hope that she gets even more plaudits for this book. She deserves a nod from some very big awards and I for one will be keeping my fingers doubly crossed for her.
The Tenth Muse depicts Katherine’s journey through childhood, university, and adulthood, and I journeyed right along with her. It made me so grateful to the women who laid the path before me; their fight for equal rights meant that I could go to university and be respected whenever I raised my hand in class. Katherine faced so many struggles and did so with so much gumption (thank you to The Holiday for teaching me this word) that I couldn’t help but revere her (even if I didn’t always agree with her). I loved this book, I devoured this book, and I think it should be put on lists of “best books” when critics start reviewing the year in December.