Though I’d heard its title bandied about, I probably would never have picked up An Abundance of Katherines under normal circumstances, since its generally labeled as “young adult” fiction, and while I’ve nothing against the genre (some of my favorite books come from my time with it, in fact), it’s no longer the sort of book I spend much time courting anymore. It wasn’t until I saw it being read and recommended by other—also not 9-12 year old—bibliophiles that I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
When I reviewed Twilight, I talked briefly about the nature of writing which seeks to appeal to certain groups. In Stephenie Meyer’s case, she’s targeting young girls on the periphery of popular social circles because they’re somehow different or “emo”; in John Green’s case, he’s targeting young men on the periphery of popular social circles because they are vastly intelligent and possibly have a mild form of autism like Asperger’s.
This is the fate of Colin Singleton, a self-described “prodigy” who showed a natural talent for linguistics and verbal skills from a very young age. Despite the crippling effect that this sort of thing usually has on social skills, Colin has managed to date a staggering nineteen girls, all of them inexplicably named Katherine, by the time he graduates from high school. When you consider that despite his prolific love life, he only has one friend (a semi-devout pudgy Sunni Muslim named Hassan), it seems a rather confusing and unnatural state of affairs. As long as we’re entertaining comparisons to Twilight, of course, I should point out that a similarly unnatural dating success seemed to follow the main character of Bella, who had no fewer than three boys flirting with her on her first day at a new high school—this despite her repeated protestations to the reader that she’s a social outcast who doesn’t belong and isn’t pretty enough.
The fate of fiction written for young adults is that it must necessarily reflect their anxieties and paranoia, but while these scenarios might play to the fantasy of readers, I think it ultimately does them a disservice, and waters down the narrative.
But enough comparisons to Twilight for now—I wouldn’t want to think too badly of John Green. The more pertinent question is how An Abundance of Katherines stands on its own merits, and for whatever it’s worth, the answer is positive.
When Colin is dumped by Katherine XIX—the most painful yet—just after graduation, he somehow ends up on a road trip with his best friend, Hassan. Though Green’s writing is intelligent, his character seem as though they were bought from the same fine breeding lineage as YA writers before him like Jerry Spinelli. Hassan is a swaggering, lazy young man who refers to his own (ostensibly large) penis as “Thunderstick,” but who is saving himself for marriage because he is (usually) a practicing Muslim. Colin is the aforementioned social outcast with the busy lovelife, but he is also the more believable character, since his existential angst forms the major plot point1 which we’ve also seen in other media but which is presented somewhat more subtlety here: what happens to a boy genius when he grows up? Or, to use Green’s parlance, how can one transition between a prodigy (one who can perform a learned behavior extremely well) and a genius (one who exhibits or creates original ideas or performance)? And how does Colin, whose obsessive-compulsive aptitude for anagrams and languages and memorization, ever create something important out of himself?
After some relatively unimportant plot points, the two roadtripping boys find themselves in Gunshot, Tennessee, after meeting the precious young Lindsey Lee. If you can already tell where the story is going based entirely on that sentence, you begin to see the weakness of the book: its plot is largely telegraphed from the beginning. Luckily for Green, and for his readers, the foregone action of the interim is interesting enough that the book is still a worthwhile read—Colin’s internal recollections of his nineteen Katherines (the relationships with which lasted anywhere from three minutes to just under a year) and his ongoing anxiety about what to do with a largely useless aptitude, and his less-than-successful attempts to create a universal theorem for predicting the length and result of romantic relationships, actually does a good job of making Colin a many-dimensional and sympathetic character. You will find yourself reading what is in some ways an archetypical bildungsroman for a passive-aggressive Gen-Y generation, but you can console yourself with the idea that shallow elements conceal the very pertinent theme of lost ambition and existential quandary, which, I might add, are hardly the sole province of the “Young Adult” crowd.
There are a few revelations, a few fights, and one of those wistful-yet-hopeful endings that always seem to signify the genre. The writing itself is mostly excellent, though I admit to being a little curious why An Abundance of Katherines is gaining traction in the older crowd, since it clearly is targeted to its marked audience. Within expected boundaries, it’s a fine book, and even if you’re looking for an easy read that isn’t insulting or insipid (Twilight, I’m looking at you), you could certainly do worse than this sophomore effort by Green.
- read: Man v. Himself[↩]