One of the prize possessions of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is Paul Gauguin’s painting, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” It’s a vision of calm query in an Edenic setting where women — young and old — languidly lounge and muse with each other.
The narrator of Catherine Chung’s second novel, “The Tenth Muse,” asks the same questions Gauguin did, as she wonders about her origins, her identity, and her destiny. But the answers she finds are rooted in the savagery of war-torn 20th-century Europe rather than a South Pacific paradise – and they induce a lifelong sense of anxiety and insecurity.
Chung’s protagonist is Katherine with a “K” — a change of spelling that inserts a small distance between writer and narrator while also drawing a close parallel between them. As a young girl growing up in small-town Michigan in the 1940s and 1950s, Katherine has no idea how much information about herself she is missing. Her ethnic appearance — her mother is Asian, her father is white — makes sense to her, even if it makes her one of a kind at her school. But when her mother, Meiying, abruptly abandons her family, everything the teenage girl thought she knew about her existence begins to unravel.
The first bombshell: Meiying wasn’t Katherine’s birth mother.
Katherine’s doting but protective father won’t tell her who her real mother was, and this, in tandem with discouraging grade-school experiences, teaches her “to distrust authority and question whether grown-ups had my best interests in mind.”
Steeping herself in her gift for mathematics, she embarks on an illustrious career while pushing for the facts of who she really is. Such facts as she’s able to uncover, however, aren’t necessarily helpful. “The truth is crippling,” she says at one point, “it does not set us free.”
“The Tenth Muse” is about secrets, betrayals and injustices. It’s also about the difficulty of giving equal due to love and career in your life. As Katherine sees it, the odds are emphatically stacked against ambition-driven women on this score. “What’s worse,” she asks, “than a hungry woman, greedy for all that isn’t meant to be hers?”
Both her mentors and her fellow students, almost all of them male, consistently underestimate her and discourage her. “If you were a man,” one of her professors tells her, “you’d have a brilliant future ahead of you.” But Katherine can be her own her own worst enemy, too. Late in the day, she acknowledges that she has “a terrible track record in terms of knowing which men to trust.” And while she can be admirable, she can also be, by her own admission, “overly defensive, always spoiling for a fight.”
Throughout her checkered progress in life, she has one prized possession that serves as a guiding thread. It’s a notebook filled with mathematical formulae that her father gave her – a “souvenir” of his service in Europe during World War II. Signed with the initials “S.M.,” it comes from the University of Göttingen and is dated 1935. Along with its math equations, it contains a snippet of text that feels to Katherine like “a direct order handed down through time.” “Be kind,” it reads. “Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
“The Tenth Muse” works best in its first half, when Katherine is still operating in the dark. As the explanations of her past come to light, Chung sometimes grows clumsy or cursory in the way she uses Nazi-era horrors to illuminate Katherine’s personal odyssey. She does better with the bracing input Katherine gets from women in her field.
“Life’s not fair,” real-life Nobel laureate Maria Mayer tells her. “I could have spent my time fighting the unfairness of it all, or I could dedicate my time to science. There wasn’t time for both.”
As for the tenth muse of the book’s title, we’re told in the book’s opening pages that she’s the youngest daughter of Zeus who “did not wish to sing in the voices of men, telling only the stories they wished to tell. She preferred to sing her songs herself.”
That, of course, is Katherine’s desire.
“[M]y work, my own vision, had always been my priority,” she says. By the end of her life, weighing what she has sacrificed against what she gained, Katherine makes peace with who she is and what she has accomplished.
“Luck, or happiness, or nearly everything in this life, I’ve found, is largely a matter of perspective,” she declares. “There is the story you think you are living in, and then there is the invisible, secret, unguessed-at core of that story, around which everything else revolves.”
At its best, “The Tenth Muse” astutely parses those layers of overt and covert narrative that shape its narrator’s life.
The Tenth Muse
By Catherine Chung
Ecco, 290 pp. $26.99
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.