Monday, July 5, 2010

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines

By John Green

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green, is a 2007 Printz Award Honor Book. I picked it as my first book to review because 1) I really liked it, 2) I think a lot of young adults (and not-so-young adults) will really like it too, and 3) I had to read it for a homework assignment, so it's fresh in my mind.

I will say that when homework involves reading a book like this, it's not so bad. The story opens the day after graduation. The main character, Colin Singleton, should be in a great place - he's a child prodigy who speaks eleven languages, who's won thousands of dollars on a game show for "smart kids," who's been accepted to all of the colleges on his list and who just graduated from high school. However, he's not in a great place - he's crying in the bathtub, until he moves to his bedroom where he lays facedown on the carpet and wishes for oblivion. What's wrong? Well, he's afraid that - at the age of 18 - he's washed up. It turns out that most child prodigies never make the transition to adult geniuses. They just learn faster, and get older, and everyone catches up to them and they aren't that special any more. Colin has been longing since he was four years old for his "Eureka Moment" - that moment of inspiration and discovery that marks the innovation of a genius. It hasn't come, and Colin is desperately afraid that it never will - that he will never do anything that "matters" in the world.

That's not the worst of it, though. The worst part is that on graduation night, he was dumped by his girlfriend, Katherine. Adding insult to injury, this marked the nineteenth time that Colin was dumped by a girl named Katherine - all his previous girlfriends shared both the name and the tendency to get bored with him.

Broken-hearted Colin figures he'll spend the summer brooding on his empty future of annonymity and solitude, with maybe a little learning Sanskrit thrown in for good measure. But his best - and only - friend, Hassan, has different plans.

Hassan, while no child prodigy, is pretty smart himself. He's a perfect foil for Colin - where Colin is introverted and awkward, Hassan is outgoing and at ease with everyone. Colin is lost in his books, Hassan riveted by Judge Judy. Colin is determined to grab all the academic accolades he can, while Hassan has put of college for one year already, and is planning on going for two. Hassan is a Muslim, Colin is Jewish. Hassan grounds Colin, keeps him from taking himself too seriously, and in the process keeps the novel from delving too deeply into preachy self-introspection. When Hassan finds Colin prone on the carpet, he determines that there's only one thing that will drag Colin out of the doldrums while also keeping Hassan from the necessity of finding a summer job: a road trip.

As they drive along, Colin begins to melodramatically compare himself to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, since the hole in Colin's heart over the loss of Katherine is as gaping and damaging as the hole blasted in the Archduke's body by an assassin, the act that sparked World War I. Imagine Colin's surprise, then, as they pass a sign for the Archduke's grave - in the middle of Tennessee. This coincidence is too much to bear, and they get off the highway, driving down rutted dirt roads until they reach the small town of Gunshot, Tennessee. The girl who guides them to the Archduke's grave, Lindsey, explains how the Archduke came to be buried in Gunshot, and introduces them to a few of her friends, including her boyfriend, also named Colin (a muscled quarterback whom Hassan and Colin dub TOC - The Other Colin), and the beautiful-but-dumb Katrina.

When Lindsey's mother, Hollis, arrives on the scene she recognizes Colin from KranialKidz, the game show where he had won thousands of dollars. On the spot, she offers Colin and Hassan jobs recording the oral histories of people who have lived in Gunshot and worked for Gunshot Textiles, the factory Hollis owns and which has provided the livelihood of all Gunshot for generations.

Ensconsed in Lindsey and Hollis' impressive pink mansion, Colin doggedly pursues his Eureka Moment through the creation of The Theorem - a mathmatical formula which, once perfected, Colin believes will be able to predict the outcome of the relationship between any two people, even before the relationship begins. At this point, there is a great deal of math, but the author assures readers through footnotes, a stylistic device which is used to great - and comedic - effect all through the book, that they don't have to read the math parts, and that they'll be explained for anyone who cares in the appendix.

However, it's hard to devise a perfect forumla in the midst of the distractions that begin to bombard Colin. Lindsey, though no Katherine, becomes more and more interesting - she challenges Colin, points out his weak spots, helps him build the formula based on her own experiences in determining how to become popular. Colin slowly becomes immersed in the community of Gunshot, which is radically different from his native Chicago, through his interviews with the people in the town - particularly the retired workers - the "oldsters" - all of whom adore Lindsey. Hassan, meanwhile, embraces all that Gunshot has to offer, including Katrina, the first girl he has ever kissed - which he does, frequently and enthusiastically, despite the fact that he's violating his religous beliefs to do so. This leads to a fight with Colin, who, in order to make up, agrees to accompany Hassan, Katrina, TOC and some of the other Gunshot boys on a boar hunt. The disasterous end to that day is as funny as it is illuminating to the characters - if a little painful, particularly for Colin and Hassan.

Toward the end, the plot takes a turn out of the inner worlds of Colin, Hassan and Lindsey and into the real world, as they learn of a threat to Gunshot Textiles, and therefore to Lindsey's mother and the entire town. This plot thread is not resolved within the scope of the book, which is frustrating to the reader, but true to life - rarely are major problems solved within a three-week-period. This is part of Colin's discovery too - that the future is, as he proclaims, unpredicatble - that there is no guarantee that he will be a genius, or a failure, or anything else. By letting go of his need to predict and control the future, he is finally able to live in the present.

Lori Likes:

Theme: This novel has a great take on the classic "quest" theme. Instead of searching for treasure, Colin and Hassan are searching for themselves. Their monsters and demons are all internal - their own fears and doubts and insecurities. The archetypal characters are all present - hero, hero's companion, wise king, maiden - but they are all flawed - Colin is a nerdy hero with glasses, Hassan an overweight, asthmatic, under-achiever of a companion, the maiden (Lindsey) saves herself from the attack perpetrated by the Dark Knight (TOC)... It's a familiar story, but has a refreshingly wry, modern, self-deprecating twist.

Characters: The characters are all likeable, and I was rooting for all of them all the way through. They take themselves a little seriously, but, that's a tendency of their age group (says the woman who once solemnly determined she was going to go down a path of self-destruction, but couldn't think of anything self-destructive to do that was certain not to cause her bodily harm). Hassan and Colin's friendship is wonderful, and gives the characters the warmth they need to make them more "real."

Voice: My favorite stylistic device in this novel is the use of footnotes throughout the text, provided in the author's voice, providing commentary on the characters, bits of trivia related to the action, and discussion aimed directly at the readers. These footnotes are frequently laugh-out-loud funny (which gets you weird looks if you're not alone when you're reading), and are a great vehicle by which the author himself gets to be a character in his book.

Lori Doesn't Much Like:

Introspection: This is a coming-of-age, search-for-identity novel, so it's given that there has to be some introspection. There's just...rather a lot of it, and when the characters begin to open up to each other, they do it with a thoroughness and a level of emotional intelligence that's just a little far-fetched both for their age and for the personalities that have been established for them. I don't know that I would be capable of the level of self-realization that these kids achieve in three weeks. They're good realizations, I'm just not convinced they could have attained them when they did.

Plot Weaknesses: I really liked the Gunshot subplot, which is interwoven with the motif of storytelling that is also a prevelent part of the novel. doesn't really go anywhere, and, while it's hinted at for a long time, the scope of the problem isn't realized until the end of the novel. Even then, it's presented rather baldly, with the announcement that there's five years to figure out a solution. So the reader is left with the idea that it'll probably be ok...or not...but no one's really sure. I know that this is realistic, and I complained about a lack of realism in the last paragraph, but it's also kind of unsatisfying, and leaves the novel feeling unfinished.


I'd recommend this as reading for anyone, senior high level or above. There's some language and some naming of body parts that might make younger readers - or their parents - uncomfortable. Also, thematically, this book deals with issues that older teens are exploring - their futures, who they are going to become, what role their parents play in their present and their future... Young adults in 10-11 grade or above will get more out of this book.

Note: I'd hate to see anyone get scared away from this book because of math phobia. I am not a math person myself, and it's not really necessary to understand anything except that Colin is really good at math to understand the action in the story.

This book would be good for beach, bath, boredom. It doesn't require a lot of effort to get into the story, understand the characters, or work through the conflicts. It's a quick, fun read, and has stayed in my head for days after reading it!

1 comment:

  1. This doesn't seem like the kind of book I'd pick up just randomly off the shelf if I saw it, but after reading your review, it seems like it might be fun even if just for a quick fluffy read. (Plus I have a weakness for "child genius" stories, which doesn't hurt matters any!)

    Great review, and welcome to the world of bookblogging!