January 31st, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *An Abundance of Katherines* by John Green

I haven’t read a YA book in years, although I hear there’s been really interesting things going on in that category for fiction. However, whenever I go into that section of the bookstore, I find myself overwhelmed with vampires, pretty little liars, and gossipy girls, and I have to run away. Not that I am against the silly side; when I was myself a Young Adult, I read a lot of teen-geared garbage (for books that required thinking, I usually just read adult ones) and it never did me any harm. I’m just a bit too old for it now, I think.

I did, of course, read some good YA in my youth, too (Paul Danziger, Gordan Korman, a few great ones I can’t recall authors for) but I don’t think I ever came across anything like John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. This fast-moving goofball comedy was a gift from my dear friend AMT (er, in 2008–I don’t know how that happened! I’m so sorry, AMT! The To Be Read challenge is saving me from myself!) So I was happy to be guided back into the YA world after all these years.

*Katherines* is the story of Colin Singleton’s summer after graduation. His girlfriend Katherine dumps him on grad night, so he and his best/only friend Hassan decide to take a road trip to help distract Colin from the pain. On the second day, in rural Tennessee, they see a sign for a roadside attraction that contains the entombed body of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand–the dude whose assination started WWI–and they have to go figure out what that’s all about.

Not very much, as it turns out–just a historic body the town bought to bring in more tourists. But the tourguide and her mother promptly adopt Colin and Hassan, giving them a place to stay and jobs for the summer for no other reason than they seem charming, and the plot demands it.

Most of the large external events in this book make little sense, and the idea that the people of rural Tennessee are dying to house, feed, and heal the souls of tourists from the north isn’t even the worst of it–that’s at least a conceit we’ve seen before, in a 100 000 romance novels. There’s also the idea that Colin–who made his first friend at 14 and stopped at one–has somehow been able to attract 19 girlfriends in the course of his life; moreover, that they were all named Katherine. Anyone who has ever been to high school knows that it’s usually easier to make a friend than get a date, especially if one is socially moronic as Colin is. Most of the 19 Katherines aren’t described in the novel until the bitter end, at which point I though there is no way I believed it. Just silly plot frills.

But, yet…I really liked this book. How did that happen? The setups are so inane, yet the characters themselves are amazingly true-to-life, and affecting. The other thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that Colin is supposed to be a child prodigy, a kid who was supersmart at a young age and has been mainly schooled by private tutors. This bit of the plot, I believed, and I really enjoyed reading about how his mind worked–the wild tangents to history, medicine, physics, etc. This book has 87 footnotes, almost all of them interesting and amusing–I was always happy to turn the page and see a footnote. There’s also a long appendix in the back about math functions, which was concise and readable and (I am a former math nerd) fascinating.

Why the math appendix? Well, another of the way-too-many layers of plot is that Colin is trying to write an equation that summarizes who gets dumped at what point in a relationship. It’s a pretty shallow and silly way to see the world (as he eventually discovers) but some of the stuff he comes up with along the way is really interesting. The new friend he and Hassan make in the country is Lindsay Lee Wells, a paramedic-in-training with a jerky boyfriend, a sarcastic sense of humour, and a heart of gold. Mainly you know where that’s headed, but she also helps him with the formula, which I thought was the best part.

Colin’s a shallow, insecure leech–as he gets dumped by the 19th Katherine, she remarks, “You don’t need a girlfriend, Colin. You need a robot who says nothing but ‘I love you.'” and she’s right. The nice thing about teen novels, as opposed to adult ones, is that it’s infinitely more forgivable to be self-obsessed when you are 18 than 28, and Colin truly does grow, mature, and learn to look for more than constant reassurance in his relationships. And it really made me happy as he did.

I feel it’s late in the review to mention this, but this book is, in addition to all of the above, hilarious! In the tradition of YA novels everywhere, the wacky best friend is a) fat and b) non-white, but Green takes Hassan to a couple different levels: Hassan is truly engaged with his Muslim faith, but to what extent is he hiding behind it to mask insecurities about his weight, social skills, etc.? I’ve never seen those questions in a YA novel, and it really works–Hassan isn’t just wacky, he’s a fully realized human character. He’s also wicked funny, and spends the book refering to himself as Daddy in the third person, demanding to watch Judge Judy and relentlessly mocking Colin in the kindest way possible. There’s also tonnes of slapstick (at one point, Colin and Hassan are chased by hornets), which you know I have a soft spot for.

Lindsay Lee Wells is also a pretty great character, which is interesting, because in my youth, YA novels were often for one gender or another, and the non-target gender was just short-handed as nice, mean, pretty, whatever. Lindsay Lee has some interesting issues, though I did feel her plotline wrapped up rather quickly at the end. I’m sure kids of any gender (and adults too) would enjoy this book.

Ok, I’m almost at 1000 words, and I haven’t covered anything about the extraneous plotlines in the town where Colin and Hassan stay–they are interesting, but go nowhere, and that’s interesting too (more like real life than wrapping everything up on page 299). And the Archduke thing you’ll have to figure out for yourself. I liked this book, is what I’m saying–maybe you would too?

This is my third review for the To Be Read challenge–9 to go!

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