The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung (Ecco Press)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Books can find their way to you at exactly the right moments. With many significant social issues demanding justice in the weeks preceding the 2020 election and the path ahead foggy at best, I was in need of strength and hope. Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse, and her heroine Katherine, appeared as an omen of power and resistance.
Set in the backdrop of Midwestern America in the 1950s and 1960s, The Tenth Muse’s protagonist, Katherine, doesn’t fit the socially acceptable model of a young woman. She has no interest in marrying and having children. Instead, she becomes a brilliant mathematician determined to forge her own path in a male-dominated profession. Traveling to Europe for professional and personal reasons, Katherine soon begins to unravel the history of a mysterious theorem, gleaming an unexpected understanding of herself.
Chung masterfully discusses the main themes of societal expectations (especially for women) and identity through Katherine’s fight for her education and exploration of her past. As Katherine continues her mathematics studies in higher education, we glimpse the difficulties she faces. She’s the only woman in all of her classes, her dedication and integrity are questioned by her professors, and she’s continually told securing a job (whether internal or external to academia) should not be expected – unlike her male counterparts. Present Katherine reflects back on this time of her life saying, “Setting aside all the research negating what he’d said, just simple common sense, I would have hoped, might have made him consider other factors first: for instance, how women hadn’t been allowed the same access to education historically, to say nothing of societal pressures even to this day for women to behave in a certain way and pursue marriage and family above everything else” (59-60). Chung’s words voiced through Katherine recall the unfairness of sexism in the past, but remind us how unfortunately still relatable they are today. Chung displays how often women must sacrifice throughout the novel and offers the best explanation in the story of Maria Mayer, the Noble Prize winning, American-German theoretical physicist Katherine encounters:
“I could have sent my time fighting the unfairness of it all, or I could dedicate my time to science. There wasn’t time for both” (119).
Along with the discrimination due to her sex, Katherine also faces questions concerning her identity. Katherine is biracial, half white and half Chinese, in a predominantly white town. The summer before Katherine starts tenth grade, her mother leaves her father, causing a spiral of events Katherine doesn’t fully process until she’s an adult: “I was so used to my perpetual status of outsider that I’d stopped questioning in each situation whether this time it was my femaleness or my Asianness or the combination of both that branded me different” (162). It takes Katherine’s father years to reveal the truth behind Katherine’s parentage; neither of the people she grew up thinking were her parents were her parents biologically. Rather, she was a WWII orphan adopted by her father before he returned to the United States. This revelation prompts her to visit Germany and sets her on a dual path of advancing her studies while learning about her past: “Here was a secret identity, whereas all my life so many of my identities had been visible and immediate. And yet despite this (or because of it?), I didn’t feel endangered in this country. Instead, I felt strangely at home” (166).
Chung’s The Tenth Muse depicts a realistic view of the difficulties women and minorities faced in the past and still endure today. Like Katherine, as we search to find out who we are, we must turn internally for the determination and courage to overcome the obstacles in our paths and reconcile our sense of self. We must find the home inside ourselves.
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