By – March 16, 2020

It came togeth­er as eas­i­ly as a puz­zle, as clean­ly as a proof.” So states Kather­ine, the nar­ra­tor of The Tenth Muse, Cather­ine Chung’s ambi­tious nov­el about one woman’s quest for pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al ful­fill­ment. The line, towards the end of book, reflects Katherine’s math­e­mat­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty and accu­rate­ly sums up the plot. But the neat­ness of the claim belies the har­row­ing events that pre­cede it, the chaot­ic jour­ney that con­cludes with equa­tion-like order.

The nov­el, set in both the Unit­ed States and Europe, spans sev­er­al decades, from the 1940s through cur­rent times. Katherine’s apti­tude for math express­es itself ear­ly on. As a young girl grow­ing up in Michi­gan, she excels in the sub­ject, much to the irri­ta­tion of her teach­ers, fel­low stu­dents and oth­ers in her orbit. That their response is caused by jeal­ousy is clear. Jeal­ousy, inse­cu­ri­ty and sus­pi­cion, feel­ings that only increase as Katherine’s skill and ambi­tion grow. This is espe­cial­ly true with respect to the male fig­ures in her life, each of whom works to under­mine her. Indeed, sex­ism is one of the novel’s cen­tral themes, and Kather­ine, as a woman who attempts to carve her own path, who, like the tenth muse,” refus­es to sing in the voice of men,” is a per­fect target.

But achiev­ing pro­fes­sion­al respect is only one part of the puz­zle. The oth­er is dis­cov­er­ing her bio­log­i­cal roots. Kather­ine is half Chi­nese, but much about her direct lin­eage remains a mys­tery. Her moth­er leaves when she’s young and her father ini­tial­ly gives no rea­sons. But there is more — much more. Through a series of some­times too coin­ci­den­tal events, she ulti­mate­ly learns the truth, a key part of which, though sur­fac­ing late in the sto­ry, is Jew­ish in nature.

The issues Chung rais­es are rel­e­vant and the plot­ting is com­plex (although a few of the episodes strain creduli­ty). But despite the nerve-wrack­ing, some­times life-endan­ger­ing action, the char­ac­ters elic­it lit­tle feel­ing. Though Kather­ine is wor­thy of our atten­tion, and her strug­gle for iden­ti­ty is relat­able, it is hard to con­nect with her emo­tion­al­ly. Despite all of her pain, she comes off more as a prob­lem to be solved than a woman with an authen­tic inner life. The under­tak­ing is admirable, but what we’re left with is more proof than heart.

The sto­ry has much real sci­ence mixed with fic­tion­al­ized the­o­ries, but also includes myths and leg­ends. It makes a case for dif­fer­ent ways of know­ing, and dif­fer­ent ways to com­plete the puzzle.

Ona Rus­sell is the author of three award-win­ning his­tor­i­cal mys­ter­ies. Her lat­est stand-alone nov­el, Son of Noth­ing­ness, was pub­lished by Sun­stone Press in 2020.

Discussion Questions

The Tenth Muse cov­ers a lot of ter­ri­to­ry! First and fore­most, the chal­lenges and vic­to­ries of a bril­liant math­e­mati­cian who hap­pens to be female. The pro­tag­o­nist, Kather­ine, is tak­en advan­tage of through rou­tine sex­ism as well as her own poor choic­es: an unfor­tu­nate rela­tion­ship with an old­er pro­fes­sor, as well as by a das­tard­ly peer, both of whom lay claim to her work. On top of that, Kather­ine has a bira­cial Chi­nese back­ground, so she faces issues of iden­ti­ty and an unsup­port­ive fam­i­ly life. All in all, the nov­el high­lights the need for women to con­tin­ue to assert and advo­cate for themselves.

Read­ers also get an unusu­al win­dow into the world of abstract math, our author-cicerone hav­ing aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground in the space. Math also pro­vides a metaphor for com­plex­i­ties for the per­son­al issues con­front­ed through­out the nov­el, a tru­ly unique fea­ture among this year’s choices.

Final­ly, the cen­tral plot gives us sat­is­fy­ing solved mys­ter­ies embrac­ing a good span of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry his­to­ry (with a focus on Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in World War II) address­ing her and her par­ents’ iden­ti­ties, and revolv­ing around a cool Ger­man note­book with provoca­tive formulas.