The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Special Credit for beautiful math concepts: 5/5

A thoughtful and unusual memoir-style novel describing the personal journey of a female mathematician as she simultaneously navigates a male dominated field and slowly uncovers the truth of her family history. Katherine is a young, bi-racial Asian American growing up in New Umbria, Michigan in the early 1950s where her prodigious mathematical talent housed in a female body is not encouraged by early academic institutions (like 3rd grade!)

The novel merges her love affair with mathematics with the difficulties of pursuing an academic career in a male-dominated field and her personal quest for the roots of her family whose tangled branches reach into both Nazi Germany and the Japanese invasion of China. Told from the perspective of our first-person narrator speaking from the end of her career, the book is a combination of articulate description and mature reflection that adds great insight to every step without detracting from the innocence of the experience.

My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of math from her perspective. They are beautifully written accounts of both the concepts themselves and the personal process of discovery, determination, and excitement that Katherine feels. I’ve included some of my favorite lines below. The author manages to take complex mathematical subjects and both reduces them to simple concepts and makes them beautiful, even to a non-mathematician. This is spectacularly done (IMHO).

Little biographical vignettes of female mathematicians throughout history are sprinkled liberally through the text. These include Hypatia (~350 – 415), Emily Noether (1882 – 1935), Maria Meyer (she of “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize” fame), Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850 – 1891), and Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) in a kind of “sister companion” to Bell’s Men of Mathematics. I loved the way the author discussed both the historical and present (late 60s) barriers to entry women faced without ranting or complaining —simply noting the contributions and the kinds of determination the women had to have.

The themes of guilt, culpability, and oppression are explored throughout the book. What is the culpability of the German mathematicians in Goettingen (formerly the “Mecca of Mathematics”) who thrived during the war years by keeping their heads down as their more distinguished colleagues were conscripted, deported to camps, or escaped the country? What guilt should adhere to a man who allowed misattributed credit for an achievement to stand because those who knew better were gone? What fault attaches to the oblivious man who genuinely wants to “support” a young, female, protege by a means which ends up completely undermining her main claim to esteem? With no heavy-handed agenda or obvious answers, these thoughtful questions percolate throughout the book.

I loved the mathematics and personal process portions of this book. Katherine is an older, professionally successful mathematician as she recounts her experiences making it full of reflection and insight. While she professes no regrets, she freely admits that she could have handled things differently — rather than put all the blame on the barriers and mistakes of others, she understands that she bears responsibility for the outcome as well. I personally didn’t enjoy the parts of the book devoted to her family discovery — they were more in a Joy Luck Club style that recounted the stories as the narrator might hear of them from others but without the reflection and insightful commentary that the narrator was able to apply to her own experiences. While I think these stories and the slow unraveling of the mystery of her origins will appeal to many, for me they were secondary to her personal quest for a meaningful life.

Some great lines:
The very first line of the book: “There is nothing as intriguing as a locked door. Which is why in 1900 when David Hilbert presented the first of his twenty-three unsolved mathematics problems in his address to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, he changed the course of scientific inquiry, and thereby the course of the world.”

“As we all know, the closest distance between two points is a straight line, but sometimes the closest distance between two ideas is a long and winding path.”

A key insight that Katherine tells her students: “It isn’t always the dazzling talent who ends up doing the great work. Sometimes people grow into their work, sometimes people burn out, and you never know who will stumble on the right problem at the right time.”

“How it was possible to fall into the space that someone left behind, and be crushed inside, like air falling back into itself with in a clap of thunder.”

“I found the promise of transcendent purity, a deeper order that never failed, I would believe in that, and let go of everything that couldn’t be counted on. Like my mother. Like family. Like home. By the time fall came around and it was time to go to university, in my mind, I was already gone.”

“They were lovely, I thought, in what they suggested — a visual representation of an idea, an ordering of a thought.”

“Analysis is considered the study of limits, but before it was called that, it was called the study of the infinite. I felt for the first time that I was looking at mathematics as it was meant to be done: here was a book that wasn’t meant just to instruct, but to open a door.”

“What I found most exhilarating was figuring out how to make the mathematical tools that explained the logic underpinning natural phenomena.”

Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 18th, 2019.