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The Tenth Muse, by Catherine Chung.

December 9, 2018

The Tenth Muse
The Tenth Muse: A Novel, by Catherine Chung. 
Harper Collins.

FORTHCOMING: June 18, 2019

5 stars  FAVORITE

A beautifully crafted novel by a Korean American woman about a Chinese American girl with a rare talent for mathematics seeking to understand her own complicated legacy while living her own complicated life as a woman facing personal choices of love and career in the biased world of academia.

Catherine Chung was born in New York to Korean immigrants.  After a childhood in New Jersey and Michigan, she graduated with a degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago and worked for the Rand Corporation.  Returning to her first love of writing, she earned her MFA from Cornell University.  She has written and published widely acclaimed short stories and the novel, Forgotten Country.

On the surface, The Tenth Muse is the story of Katherine, a girl of Chinese descent growing up in an unusual family, never quite feeling she belonged, and spending a lifetime trying to discover where she belonged.  At another level, the narrative traces a young woman of rare mathematical genius seeking achievement in a world that regularly discounts the ability of women.  As the book progresses, Katherine struggles with choices around independent aspiration and sacrificial love, appearing in various configurations.  She views the choices exemplified by stories her mother told her.  On one hand there was “the tenth muse,” an additional muse who refused to be a passive inspiration for others and a Chinese princess who was willing to give her life for other for others.  When Katherine goes to Europe, her career and her search for her personal history become interwoven with events from World War II and affect her sense of her own identity.

Chung subtlety and sensitively explores moral issues while telling a compelling story.  By framing old dilemmas in new terms, she is able to give them new life.  The narrative and the characters are complex.  Good people have flaws,  opening the way for betrayals and loss.  Although Chung’s plot is clear and often urgent, her narrative is never simplistic.

This is a glorious book.  One that I would  love to discuss with other readers who care about goodness and truth.  I have already ordered a copy of Chung’s other novel.

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