Friday, July 24, 2009

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he took a bath.

And so begins one of the most charming "finding self" novels I've read in a long time. Maybe ever. I am so glad this book caught my eye (with a cover like that, how could it not?) It is an honest, beautiful, and really, really funny book.

Colin is a prodigy. We find out early on, however, that prodigy does not necessarily mean genius. What Colin would like, more than anything, is to do something original, something that hasn't been done before -- something that matters. And he would also like a girlfriend named Katherine. All of his girlfriends have been Katherines, and all of them have dumped him. So after his heart is broken by K-19, his friend Hassan ("Sunni Muslim. Not a terrorist.") pulls him off his bedroom floor, gets him in the car ("Satan's Hearse") and they start driving. A random road sign takes them to small-town Tennessee, where they meet Lindsey Lee Wells (paramedic-in-training) and her cadre of friends, her mother, and assorted characters from the town. Things happen, Theorems of Underlying Katherine Predictability get postulated, and many stories get told.

I'm not sure how to start with what I liked. First of all, and perhaps least important, there are footnotes! I love a book with footnotes. The footnotes include some of the more hilarious bits (I particularly liked Colin's sentence that allowed him to remember the first 100 digits of pi) but never take away from the action. Second, Green's turn of phrase is astounding. He says things that seem perfect. You know how authors sometimes write a sentence that makes you think, "There is no better way in the entire English language to say that"? This book is full of those for me.

I love the characters too. They're witty without being completely unrealistic, although occasionally they border on being slightly too quick with a quip. But Green has done something really special with Colin -- by taking Colin as a prodigy, he's magnified a period that many of us who have been teenagers have gone through. We thought we were one thing, we had our (admittedly fluid) identity, before various hormones hit and before we were spit out into the "real world" (or entered college or university, which is a very different thing). And then suddenly we are finished high school, at loose ends, wondering who the hell we are and what the hell we're going to do with our lives. Colin's pre-graduation identity is larger than life, but it's a feeling lots of us have had at one time or another. Hassan and Lindsey both experience similar crises in different ways. And they get through it okay, which is comforting.

And what I loved most was the role storytelling, the way we tell stories and the stories that we choose to tell, played in the book. It's subtle at first, but it's there; and it grows more powerful as the plot goes on. It's just perfect.

If I had one gripe, it's that the setup for the plot happens just a little too quickly. Hassan and Colin hit it off with Lindsey immediately, and then with Hollis just as quickly, and so the setup is complete with almost unbelievable speed. I'm saying "almost" because really, I was enjoying myself too much to not believe it.

To finish, a couple of passages I liked:

"Look," Hassan said. "This is my ninth day at a school in my entire life, and yet somehow I have already grasped what you can and cannot say. And you cannot say anything about your own sphincter."

"It's part of your eye," Colin said defensively. "I was being clever."

"Listen, dude. You gotta know your audience. That bit would kill at an opthalmologist convention, but in calculus class, everybody's just wondering how the hell you got an eyelash there."

And so they were friends.


Think about it: boys, basically, want to kiss girls. Guys want to make out. Always. Hassan aside, there's rarely a time when a boy is thinking, "Eh, I think I'd rather not kiss a girl today." Maybe if a guy is actually, literally on fire, he won't be thinking about hooking up. But that's about it. Where girls are very fickle about the business of kissing. Sometimes they want to make out; sometimes they don't. They're an impenetrable fortress of unknowability, really.

Those aren't the only bits I wanted to quote. If I quoted everything, this post would include most of the book. There are sections where I was giggling and nodding for pages. This book is very much recommended for anyone who enjoys a good, funny, romantic but not squishy romantic, read.


Anonymous said...

Ha, awesome choice of quotes! Your review makes me want to read AoK again. And I agree with your small gripe about the fast speed of the plot. It is otherwise a pretty close to perfect book.


Unknown said...

I think "impenetrable fortress of unknowability" is going to be a phrase that is stuck in my head forever now. And I agree -- very close to perfect.

Ana S. said...

"And what I loved most was the role storytelling, the way we tell stories and the stories that we choose to tell, played in the book."

Yes! Same here. And this is a theme I'm drawn to again and again. I loved this book, and I'm glad you did too :)

Unknown said...

There's always something slightly postmodern about a story about stories. I always really enjoy it.