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John Green’s name has been on my radar a lot this year, probably due to the success of The Fault in Our Stars and its subsequent movie version. Because I kept hearing about The Fault in Our Stars, I looked it up at my library. It had a waitlist so, while waiting, I read Paper Towns. I enjoyed it a lot and was happy to read TFiOS, a lovely and thoughtful book, not long after. John Green was moving up on my list of “default authors”, those whose works you’re pretty sure you’ll enjoy regardless of subject matter. And then I read An Abundance of Katherines.
An Abundance of Katherines, published in 2006, tells the story of Colin Singleton. Colin is a 17-year-old prodigy who has become depressed because he hasn’t had a “eureka” moment yet and subsequently isn’t considered a genius. He carries a lot of guilt over this, partly due to pressure from his parents not to squander his gifts.
When we first meet Colin he’s living in Chicago, has recently graduated high school, and has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Katherine. Or more specifically, Katherine XIX. You see, Colin has dated 19 girls all named Katherine (spelled that exact way) over the course of his short life. This is the main thing that I find silly about the book; I mean, I can wrap my head around three or four Katherines, but 19? Then again, Colin is big on languages and loves anagrams. Making anagrams out of random words is a trick he uses throughout the book, for his own enjoyment as well as that of the Katherines and his best friend Hassan Harbish.
Hassan is quite the character: a lazy, somewhat overweight Sunni Muslim who loves Judge Judy and doesn’t want to go to college. The contrast between Hassan, who is smart enough but not driven, and Colin, a prodigy who just wants to leave his mark on the world, was the highlight of the book for me. Without Hassan, the book would have felt very uneven.
Hassan somehow convinces Colin to take a road trip with him, partly to help get Colin’s mind off being dumped by Katherine XIX. Colin’s parents aren’t incredibly enthusiastic about this plan but allow it as long as Colin checks in with them daily. So Hassan and Colin are soon on the road out of Chicago. They travel as far as Tennessee when Colin spots a sign for the supposed final resting place of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death sparked World War I. Since Ferdinand made a mark on history (although not in a way most would envy), Colin wants to stop and visit the grave site. There they meet Lindsey Lee Wells, a “paramedic in training” who also runs the family’s general store and gives tours of the Archduke’s grave site.
While in town, Colin and Hassan are persuaded to help Lindsey’s mother, Hollis, with a project documenting the workers of the town’s factory (which currently produces tampon strings). Aside from this project, Colin spends the bulk of his time in Tennessee working on an algorithm that will prove which person in a relationship will break up with the other. During this time we also learn the backstories of the numerous Katherines.
While I really enjoyed the interplay between Colin, Hassan and Lindsey, the book as a whole made me antsy. Growing up, I tested into my school district’s Gifted and Talented Program in third grade. I don’t say this in any kind of “I’m so intelligent, look at me” way because I certainly don’t think I have a high intelligence level. (I’m not a total idiot but I would never label myself as “gifted”.) I’ve often wondered if the primary goal of that program was to make the students feel inadequate, like we hadn’t quite pushed ourselves enough. I’ve had feelings of depression similar to Colin’s at various points in life. I mean, I don’t have any grandiose ideas about leaving my mark on the world; my thoughts have typically leaned more toward the “What do I want to do with my life?” and “Is there more I could do?” variety. And honestly, I’m sure most people have those thoughts – maybe I just like blaming it on residual “gifted and talented” squandered-youth guilt.
The good news is that Colin did finally have his eureka moment. (I won’t give it away by discussing it here in case you haven’t read it, but the book ended on a positive note.) The good news for me is that all those “Is there more I could do??” thoughts that this book triggered helped me start writing again. So yes, there was more that I could do and now I’m doing it. Success!
What I like most about Green’s writing is that I always learn random facts, in a fun way, while reading his books. For example, I had no idea before reading Paper Towns that paper towns are fictitious places (existing only on paper) used as copyright traps by cartographers to prevent plagiarism. And while I don’t remember most of it, An Abundance of Katherines included a number of words and phrases in Arabic, “the sacred language of the Quran” according to Hassan. I don’t have anywhere near Colin’s gift for languages but I appreciate that the phrases were included – it added to book’s authenticity.
Verdict: I was really on the fence about An Abundance of Katherines while reading most of it. The 19 total Katherines were really far-fetched to me, but mostly the book just brought up a lot of anxiety about whether I could have been/done more in life. What the book reminded me is that everything happens for a reason in its own time.
Also, I have to say – I love the character of Hassan. I haven’t read a lot of books – that I can recall, anyway – with Muslim characters. That’s not an intentional thing, just something I realized after reading AAUK. While people could be frustrated that Hassan isn’t the main character or that he’s seemingly less intelligent and more lazy than Colin, I find it amazing that he’s in there at all. A hyper-intelligent and driven white kid and a Judge Judy-obsessed, lazy Muslim are best friends in Chicago. If that doesn’t represent progress, I don’t know what would.
Recommended for: Fans of John Green’s writing or those looking to understand the mindset of unique teenage characters.
Price: $4.99 (Kindle), $7.48 (paperback), or $13.29 (hardcover) on Amazon