Review: Romance · Review: Teen Fiction

Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

I learned of John Green through the vlogbrothers youtube channel with he runs with his brother Hank, and I reached this through the videos of a certain CGP Grey, who makes amazing educational videos. I never really intended to read any of John Green’s books, but last week when I was at the library, I thought, “What the heck?” and asked for A Fault in Our Stars. They didn’t have this, but they did have An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns.

If I had to verbalize why I chose to read Katherines first…well, probably because the title sounds more interesting.

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of a childhood prodigy named Colin with a talent for anagramming and, apparently, dating girls named Katherine. He’s just been dumped by his 19th Katherine (although she was also his 1st Katherine, so this numbering system is a little odd), and his having a crisis of existence. He wants to be important, to make a difference, and the fact that his amazing anagramming and other literary skills (he speaks something like 11 languages) are not marketable bugs him.

Lies, I thought when I read that. Translation is plenty marketable. But I guess he wants to be marketable in a way that is less…menial.

Anyway, Colin and his best friend Hassan go on a roadtrip that leads them to a little town in the middle nowhere, where they get jobs at a factory and end up staying for a while with a girl named Lindsey and the owner of the factory named Hollis (who is presumably Lindsey’s mother, though I can’t recall if this was ever explicitly stated).

In a way, this book is very presumptuous in a way that is quite unsavory to me personally. It’s all well and good that Colin and Hassan use Arabic with each other, as this is presumably Hassan’s mother tongue (in the sense that it seems to be what gets spoken in his household). And Colin knowing a bunch of random languages, it’s understandable that the narrative would use the occasional world for which there is no English equivalent. But for instance, Lindsey’s knowing German and exchanging one line each with Colin in German before switching back to English was…annoying.

“Okay, so we’ve established that we both speak German,” Lindsey says, and the conversation continues from there in English. But why? I want to scream. If you can both speak German, why don’t you just keep on in German? Why the random phrases and words if you’re never going to actually use it? It felt like a way of trying to bash the reader’s head into the idea of these characters as well-studied, intelligent characters without taking the time to build that up as a character trait. Which was odd, because I thought that they were quite well constructed, even without these random slices of random languages.

Or maybe I just took it as a slightly personal insult to people like me who have struggled with languages everyday of our lives ever since that first fateful day when we realized that our language skills weren’t quite up to speed with that of our classmates, falling further and further behind with every subsequent move to a place with a new language. I get that there are probably multilinguals who think like this. But I’ve never met one, and until I do, I reserve the right to be frustrated as language as an either-or proposition, as in you know it or you don’t, heedless of vocabulary, nuance, slang, practice, dialect, mix-ups with similar sounding words and so many other things that actually make it more than a matter of “just” learning a bunch of languages.

But I digress. This, and Colin’s obscene number of girlfriends, were my only real peeves with this book. I think that the number of girlfriends must be an American thing? Or maybe a Chicago thing? In my little world, 19 girlfriends at the point of high school graduation, with this last girlfriend having lasted nearly a year, seems a bit…well, a lot. But it’s not really important to the story, except that I have this odd feeling that maybe Green wanted to lay some significance into the number 19. I’m going to be a horrible reader and just overlook that, as it made no difference to me beyond demonstrating how very needy Colin is of other people’s affection.

To me, what this story was about was learning to be happy with who you are. Prodigy or no, doer or non-doer, girlfriend or no girlfriend, it was about growing up past these preconceived notions that society hammers into us and realizing that life can be plenty amazing if we can be simply happy with who we are. And that was a message that I loved. Colin, though needy and whiny and not at all likable at the beginning of this story, is a character that many of us can relate to because I think that we all have the crisis that he’s going through in some shape, way or form. For some of us, it isn’t about being important or mattering, but rather at being good at something rather than just average; for some of us, it’s about enjoying something through a sea of apathy; for some of us, it’s about finding a way to support ourselves financially while enjoying completely non-profitable hobbies. Hassan’s desire to do nothing and Colin’s desire to be important are only two facets of this huge question about the human condition, but Green had the courage to tackle it…and did so quite well, in my opinion.

Like I said, I watch a lot of vlogbrothers videos. So I get that Green puts a lot of symbolism and layers into his writing. And while that’s great, I don’t really see symbols and layers in this story very much. I see a story. A very well-told story that acknowledges that everyone has his or her own life and his or her own problems, that ends not as a lecture about doing the best you can or trying harder, but about being happy with who you are and what you can do. It doesn’t end as a finality: the characters still are in the middle of an emotional journey to seek out their purpose that will continue for as long as they are alive, but one small arc is done. This portrayal of mankind was, in my opinion, Green’s greatest triumph in this book.

For the second time today, I’m not going to rate this. In fact, I may give up rating works altogether. My opinions should speak for themselves, I think, without my arbitrary reliance on a number to convey my admiration. But I will say this: if you know a teenaged/preteen person and are wondering what to get them, this book might be a very nice choice. All the more so if this person likes math, in fact, because a large part of this book is dedicated to a mathematical formula that Colin is attempting to construct to predict relationship patterns.

(That gave me a flashback to a class I had to take during my Masters, actually, which was more or less exactly that: any aspect of life can be predicted with a formula if you just add enough variables! We used integration, though, whereas Colin sticks to relatively basic geometry. That said, I’m no mathematician–I couldn’t tell you which, if either, works better.)

Buy the book here at Amazon.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

  1. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds interesting to say the least. The only work I’ve read by Green was The Fault in Our Stars which I really didn’t like unfortunately, so I’m slightly reluctant to pick up another of his works. But the characters in Katherines seem a lot more relatable than those in Stars, which seems to be an improvement.

    1. I have yet to read A Fault in Our Stars so I can’t really comment on that, but in general, I’d say that one book gives you very little on which to judge the author in general if he/she is a good writer. (And I add the “good writer” bit because there are certainly many mainstream authors for whom if you’ve read one book, you’ve read them all.)

      But yeah, I’d definitely suggest giving it a try! I’m about half way through Paper Towns now, and so far finding it even more fun than An Abundance of Katherines.

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

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