A mathematician with a Chinese immigrant mother and a white American father recounts her life among geniuses and the search for her true identity.
“I suppose I should warn you,” says Katherine, the narrator of Chung’s (Forgotten Country, 2012) elegant novel, “that I tell a story like a woman: looping into myself, interrupting.” Katherine’s womanhood weighs heavily on her, first as a young math prodigy and then later as one of the only female graduate students at MIT in the early 1960s. Despite being surrounded by men who either dismiss her outright or want to use her astonishing intelligence for their own gains, Katherine never loses her ambition to have an academic career and to solve the Riemann hypothesis, one of the greatest mysteries in math. Though she befriends some of history’s most famous scientists and mathematicians—Chung weaves numerous historical figures into her fictional world—Katherine’s feeling of otherness is deepened by a mystery at her life’s core: Her parents are not who she thought they were, and she has only a few stories from her father, a World War II veteran, and a German notebook full of equations to help her solve the mystery of her parentage. Their real identities, buried somewhere in the gaps left after the Nazis ravaged Europe during the war, may help Katherine understand not only the riddle of who she really is, but perhaps even some of the largest mysteries of nature and the universe. Chung’s novel, with its formality and clean chronology, seems a throwback to another time, like a perfectly tailored tuxedo. But that’s perfect for a memorable character like Katherine, whose belief in what she has to offer the world, and in her place in the lineage of women “who chose a different path,” never wavers.
A powerful and virtuosically researched story about the mysteries of the head and the heart.