Cover Image: The Tenth Muse

The Tenth Muse

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Member Reviews

Thanks to Little Brown and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review. 

This book made me feel interested in and enthused about Maths which is really saying a lot. It is something rather special. I was worried that it was going to be one of those awfully clever books that makes me feel thick, but I was pleasantly surprised (and relieved!). 

The main character, Katherine, looks back on her life and the barriers she has faced. Growing up in post-war Michigan, she was abandoned in childhood by her Chinese mother and raised by her white American father. As Katherine’s story progresses, we learn that her family history is not quite so simple and she begins to gradually unlock long held secrets.   

Despite an interest and aptitude in Math and Science nurtured by her father, Katherine’s abilities are often ignored or downplayed by those she meets. We see the barriers related to both race and gender that Katherine faces in making a career in Mathematics academia, which even now is very much a “man’s world”.  

Katherine is determined to try and solve the Riemann Hypothesis, and this quest takes her through academic circles where she meets both friend and foe. Her quest also brings her on a journey deeper into her past and she meets those who will both help and hinder her quest. She travels to Germany to uncover secrets buried since World War 2 to try and find some of the answers she seeks both academic, and personal.  

It sounds trite but this is one of those “it’s not the destination but the journey” kind of books. Whether or not Katherine solves the Reinmann Hypothesis doesn’t really matter. What’s matters is the choices we make and the sacrifices we have to endure when we make those choices. I couldn’t always connect with Katherine on a personal level as my experiences are so completely different to hers and she made choices that I wouldn’t, but her experience as a woman, and the struggles she faces are sadly universal. There is a fair bit of Mathematics yes, but we get to see the beauty and philosophical links that Maths has to the natural order of things which I found really illuminating.
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another story of a young woman trying to find her place in the world but this time it is that of Katherine, a Chinese-American mathematician, who needs to fight against an academic field fraught with misogyny but then discovers that she also has to struggle to find her true identity. While my arithmetic is good the higher levels of maths are a bit of a mystery to me but this didn’t really matter – to be honest, women in almost any academic area suffer from similar problems – and it didn’t detract from the personal story. In a way, the struggle to discover her true parentage was an interesting parallel to the search for the solution to some of mathematics’ unsolved problems – a combination of inspiration, deduction and rediscovery of missed clues.
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Well written and gripping. I can completely recommend this to those who like women's fiction. Great story.
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I received an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley, Little, Brown Book Group UK, and the author Catherine Chung. 
I really enjoyed this book. The start was admittedly quite slow going, but I would recommend that you power through all the Maths jargon, I promise you it is worth it. Once the story got going I was absolutely gripped. I loved the WW2 elements that were entwined with the story, and it was heartbreaking at times.
A hugely engrossing and mesmerising book, would highly recommend. 4 stars.
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For the most part, I really liked The Tenth Muse. I loved the way that Catherine Chung used her narrator to tell fairytales, to dig up the history of women in mathematics, the war, mathematical history. I loved the characters and the writing, the sense of place and time. But for some reason, the last quarter grated on me. I think I found Katherine's stubbornness frustrating - I understood it, but I wanted her to move forward from it. There wasn't enough character development perhaps, and the last section felt a bit forced, like it was just there to tie up loose ends and by that point I didn't care quite as much as I wanted to. It's beautifully written, a highly worthy debut, interesting and feminist, if a little too angry at times, it's a justified anger, an understandable sentiment. Not much happens, there's a lot of narrating and explaining, not a huge amount of action, but that works for the most part - I'd recommend this one, mostly I liked it a lot, although I didn't quite love it.
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The Tenth Muse, Catherine Chung’s second novel, is an elegant and absorbing fiction, an interlocking set of stories within a complex narrative that never seems convoluted. Filled with lovely prose, the novel manages to remain an intimate story while going through a sweeping history. The way that Chung marvels at the power of science and mathematics in describing the natural world entranced me. 

Her real subject, beyond the magic of storytelling, is the problem of identity, as shaped by gender, ethnicity, history and choice. An enthralling work of literary fiction worth the hype.
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This is the heart-warming story of Katherine, a brilliant mathematician who constantly has to prove herself in a world that would rather have her quiet. Her life takes a surprising turn when she discovers that all she has ever known about herself is a lie. She dedicates her life to her work and tracking down her relations, people who would claim her, only to realise at the end of it that love, family is about who you claim.

It explores such themes as friendship, loyalty, belonging, and family - there is so much to consider and to learn about these topics and more. In a way, this was a coming-of-age or coming-into-self story for Katherine. She learns to accept her flaws, count her blessings and bear her wounds with grace. I'm especially glad that she excelled at her work.
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This was an excellent story, well written and researched and impressive. The writing was divine. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher!!
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This was an enjoyable and yet, at times, underwhelming read, featuring some accessible maths talk, historical drama, romance, betrayal and a neatly structured plot.
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"No feeling is final" - what an amazing book.  
Reflecting on her life in post world war 2 Michigan, the main character touches on many points, themes and issues that still need to be addressed, from gender to perception of the world and beyond.
Touching, poignant and beautiful, I loved this book!  A great view of maths, the information in the world and how we process it and how we negate or ignore talents that don't integrate with the norm.  How outsiders feel, and how difficult it is to feel like you belong.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this ebook in exchange for an honest review.
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I really liked this! The main character was interesting - cold and not hugely likeable - but, because of this, fascinating. I loved the backdrop of the mathematics world, particularly the angles of the roles of women, and the terrible impact of the Holocaust. Well written and intriguing.
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Reviewed for the New Scientist website (text copied below)

“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified,” says Katherine, the narrator of Catherine Chung’s novel The Tenth Muse. “If the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true.”

The book contrasts the axioms of mathematics with the mutability and complexities of life. This is historical rather than speculative fiction, reaching from the present back to World War II and the mid-20th century.

As a child in 1950s America, Katherine is intrigued by nature and space. She annoys a primary school teacher by doing sums in her head, using a time-saving technique used by the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss as a child. (What is the sum of the numbers 1 through 9? 45, Katherine answers quickly, having added up pairs of numbers on opposite sides to give four sets of 10 – 1+9, 2+8 and so on – and the unpaired 5 in the middle.)

She becomes a mathematician, working on the Riemann hypothesis. Proposed by Bernhard Riemann in 1859, it is one of the most significant unsolved problems in pure mathematics – one of seven millennium problems with a $1 million prize on offer from the Clay Mathematics Institute. The problem, as Katherine puts it, “predicts a meaningful pattern hidden deep within the seemingly chaotic distribution of prime numbers”.

It also becomes inextricable from the unravelling mystery of Katherine’s own family history. The search takes her to the University of Göttingen in Germany, once a powerhouse of maths at the turn of the 20th century, and later, less salubriously, known for its “great purge” of Jewish researchers in the 1930s.

The novel is extensively researched, replete with the lives and work of luminaries such as Srinivasa Ramanujan, Alan Turing, and David Hilbert; the maths and physics it comprises range from the accessible to the esoteric. The characters’ dialogue tends towards the novelistic: on occasion, their style of recounting stories is implausibly similar to that of the book’s narration.

Chung, who has a mathematics degree from the University of Chicago, renders complex concepts with poetic verve. In one salient example, Katherine solves a question that asks how a boy, separated by a lake and ferryman from his lover, can send her a ring. The ferryman travels between them, carrying a lockable box, but steals anything inside it if it’s left unlocked. The boy and girl each have a lock with a unique key – so how can the boy send the ring across without it being stolen? The solution (which I won’t divulge) is elegant, and forms an analogy for public-key cryptography.

The book also highlights the pioneering work of female mathematicians Emmy Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. The only woman in many of her university maths classes – “a skirt in a sea of pants” – Katherine is determined to be taken seriously. Here, the novel is most trenchant: in railing against the sexism for so long ingrained in academia.

Katherine resents being underestimated because she is a half-Chinese woman, a prejudice that at its most extreme leads others to question whether her work is in fact her own.

“If you were a man, you’d have a brilliant future ahead of you,” says one professor.

One scene details a dinner party with the (real-life) physicist Maria Mayer. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963, the San Diego Tribune ran a story referring to her as a “San Diego mother” in the headline. For years, Mayer had worked for free because many physics departments refused to pay her.

There is no dearth of short-changed women in history – in science or in general. The Tenth Muse is keenly aware of how easily the past can be rewritten, achievements and lives subtracted.

The book gets its title from a “tenth muse” – an addition to the nine muses of Greek mythology, one who is unwilling to use her talents solely as a means to amplify men’s voices. The novel is an invocation of sorts, a panegyric to women who blaze their own paths, and tell their own stories.
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A life driven and dominated by mathematics.  And not everything is as it seems.  Her parents are not her parents; her background is not what she had been led to believe.  Her journey through academia, and to discover her origins is fascinating.

Not my normal choice, but I'm glad NetGalley gave me the opportunity to try it.  Very well written and engaging.
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There aren’t enough superlatives for this book!! I never thought anyone would make me interested in math, and want to read a novel based around it but Catherine Chung has not only managed it but made me long to still be reading it. 
Her prose is quiet and gentle, a lightness of touch and sensitivity over even the most heartbreaking parts of the novel. Katherine is a heroine I was cheering for from start to finish. I would have made different choices than she did, but she explained her motivations so well that I could really see her point of view and see that what she chose was right for her. For so much of the book I was questioning whether I was reading a novel or a memoir. I can’t think of many,  if any first person novels that have given me the same level of cognitive dissonance. 
This book made me proud to be a woman, proud of those who had come before me and struggled without the rights and opportunities that I’ve taken for granted. 
Read it, it’s beautiful and I can promise you won’t regret it!
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A brilliant historical mystery, following a maths genius' struggle to succeed in a male-dominated arena and track down her tangled family past. There are many different themes to this book, but Chung elegantly balances them to make it entertaining, helped by feather-light prose. I'm still thinking about the Europe scenes days after finishing.
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'“Like the world got larger,” I said. “No, like my mind expanded. Like my mind was holding the world, and the world was holding me.”  
“Your mind beheld the mind of the world,” my mother said. “And it recognized yours in return."'

Catherine Chung’s “The Tenth Muse” is an engaging, informative, and heart-wrenching novel about an exceptional woman’s life. It is told from the perspective of a much older and wiser Katherine, who speaks of her life from early childhood in post-WWII small-town America, through her years as a Maths major at university, covering her awakening to the wonders of nature and science, her struggle to be respected in a male-dominated field, and her ongoing search for identity and belonging, whilst also giving short introductions to important women in the field of mathematics, and highlighting lesser known parts of WWII history. The scope is mindboggling, but Chung expertly weaves all these strands into a thought-provoking page-turner. 

As a child of an interracial relationship (her father is American, her mother Chinese) with an unusual aptitude for maths and science, Katherine experiences a feeling of otherness from early on. From her primary school teacher shaming her for being too quick-witted in the classroom, to being underestimated by professors, both her race and gender only serve to increase the bias people approach her with: “Even now, I feel impatient when asked about what being these things mean to me—the expectation that because my race and my gender are often the first things people notice about me, they must also be the most significant to me.”

However, Katherine doesn’t get bogged down by this – she is a natural-born fighter, stubborn and proud: “I began to speak out of turn in classes, not waiting to be called on, but anticipating, jumping in, and asking for clarification. I had learned that if I waited to be called on, my turn would never come.”

Don’t let the theme of maths deter you from picking up this novel: Chung’s descriptions make the field approachable, and even fascinating – and this is coming from someone with barely any understanding of maths. The maths theme aside, this novel covers a wide range of aspects: questions of identity and belonging, abandonment, betrayal, a woman’s place in academia, family secrets, and individual ways of dealing with a difficult historical past. A thoroughly enjoyable read – highly recommended! 

Thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review can also be found on Goodreads:
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Don’t let the maths put you off! This is a moving and thought provoking exploration of identity, history, gender and love.
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The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
Published by Little, Brown UK
Publication date: 07 November, 2019

To say The Tenth Muse is a triumph would be an understatement. The writing is eloquent, poised, and fresh, all without the feeling that it’s trying too hard to be anything. It draws you into the world of mathematics with such ease that you feel you belong, even if, like some of us, you most certainly do not. 

I went into this book knowing very little about it. I’d read the blurb quite some time before I received it and beyond remembering that I’d thought it sounded interesting, I had no expectations. To be met with a story filled with so much emotion, insight—humanity— wrapped up in a plot that kept me turning pages was a rare gift. So often when I read, my critical (if not cynical) eye takes me out of the story, distracting me with what I think will happen, what I find predictable, improbable or unrealistic—this just didn’t happen with this book. I was captivated.

When I review books I normally focus on impressions, points that make it something I’d recommend or not, preferring to leave summarising to others (I’m spoiler-averse and this is also the kind of reviews I like to read); I find with this book I’m even more inclined to keep my review brief so as to leave the ground fresh for potential readers. I will say, I unreservedly recommend this book to anyone interested in literary fiction regardless of whether or not they have an interest in mathematics and, though I was given an advance copy for review, I will be purchasing this book for my mother as well as some friends. 

With many thanks to NetGalley, Little, Brown UK, and Catherine Chung for the opportunity to read and review The Tenth Muse.
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My thanks to Little, Brown Book Group U.K. for a digital edition via NetGalley of The Tenth Muse’ by Catherine Chung in exchange for an honest review. Its ebook and audiobook editions were published in June with the hardback edition due for publication on 7th November.

From a young age Katherine, the narrator of this remarkable novel, knows that she is different. She is a gifted mathematician during a time when the field was dominated by men. She had many obstacles to surmount including prejudice due to her interracial parentage. 

From publisher: “On her quest to conquer the Riemann hypothesis, the greatest unsolved mathematical problem of her time, she turns to a theorem with a mysterious history that holds both the lock and key to her identity, and to secrets long buried during World War II.”

The story is told in retrospect by the elderly Katherine beginning with her childhood during the 1940-50s in Michigan through her years in graduate school and the aftermath of the decisions she made while there.

There were times when Katherine’s stubbornness frustrated me, though clearly as a character she developed and had gained insight into her youthful behaviour.

Catherine Chung has a degree in mathematics and was able to clearly convey aspects of higher mathematics within the narrative for readers unfamiliar with its history and concepts.

I have always felt a connection with the Muses of Greek mythology, which is what initially drew me to the novel. While I found Chang’s story of the tenth Muse interesting, I had wondered if she would assign a Muse to Mathematics.

I found this an intelligent and moving novel, beautifully written and one to savour. I purchased its audiobook edition, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, to supplement my reading of the ebook.

I would expect it to be one that will prove popular with reading groups for the various themes and historical aspects it presents.

Highly recommended.
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This book is so beautifully written I’ve been reading it slowly to make it last. In so doing nearly had it archived. I won’t discuss plot as it would spoil it but I really hope it does well. I’ll be recommending it to friends and buying it for one.
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