Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
3.5Q/3P S

Are you a Dumper or a Dumpee? Colin is a Dumpee. He knows this because he's been dumped nineteen times. But this one is the worst. This one hurts more than all the other dumps combined. He didn't love all the other Katherines who dumped him, but he loved this one. He's so depressed that his best friend Hassan decides that the only thing that will help is a road trip to get Colin as far away from Katherine XIX as possible. Colin and Hassan eventually wind up in Shotgun, Tennesee. Enter Lindsey Lee Wells and her mother, Hollis.

Lindsey Lee works at the general store. She's pretty and intelligent, with a sharp wit. If she were only named Katherine (and he wasn't so depressed about being dumped), Colin might be interested. But she's not, and he is, and besides, Lindsey is already dating another guy named Colin. Her mother, Hollis, owns the factory that employs most of the town. She offers the boys a job interviewing the town's inhabitants about the good old days. What the heck. They have nothing better to do, and the road trip thing isn't really working for them. They say yes.

Colin and Hassan figure they aren't exactly small town Tennessee-type people. Colin is former child prodigy, super-intelligent, a lover of anagrams, a whiz at math, and the former boyfriend of nineteen girls named Katherine. And he's getting more and more worried as the months go by that he isn't living up to his early promise. Prodigies are good at something (like math and languages) at a very early age. Geniuses take known information and take it to unexpected and unexplored areas. Einstein was a genius. Colin was just a prodigy, and he can't bear the idea that he's washed up at eighteen. He is obsessed with the idea of making his life matter. Hassan, on the other hand, has blown off college and plans to continue blowing it off. He's a pudgy guy who just wants to let things happen as they happen. He probably has a lot of company in that in Gutshot. But Hassan is also a practicing Muslim (he doesn't smoke, drink, or date - usually) and there aren't a lot of those in Gutshot. He has a feeling he won't be very welcome here. The boys don't know what to expect from Gutshot, other than not much. Instead, of course, they get much more than they bargained for.

What do you do when you're a perpetual Dumpee? You wallow in your pain for a while, you check your cell phone constantly for messages you know aren't going to come, and every once in a while, you give in to the temptation to call your Dumper, even though you know it's a bad idea. And if you're Colin, you also spend hours working out a mathmatical equation, a theorem, that can predict the rise and fall of relationships. Wouldn't everyone want to know before it began how a relationship will unfold? Maybe this is the thing he'll be remembered for. Maybe this is how he will turn out to matter. The trouble is, he just can't get it right. A good theorem has to work every time, but his only works on some of his relationships, and he can't figure out why. It's Lindsey who gives him the keys. In fact, Lindsey is key to a lot that Colin learns over the summer.

I confess that I like the parts of this book more than I like the whole. There are a lot of individual passages and lines that I really like. There's a smart-*ss sense of humor that's fun as well as some very poignant moments and descriptions. I like and can relate to Colin in many ways. Don't most of us want to matter? But the math thing didn't work well for me. It felt forced and a little too cutesy. I also ran hot and cold on the footnotes. Some of them were fun and/or informative, but again, sometimes they seemed unnecessary or a somewhat clunky attempt to add humor. And here's an issue that nagged at me throughout the book. Colin has had nineteen Katherines as girlfriends. Within a week of meeting her, he bonds with Lindsey. This does not strike me as the hallmark of a boy who has a hard time relating to people socially, and it seems highly unlikely of a boy who has only managed to form one other friendship in his life, yet we keep getting told that he's socially incompetent. I know some of his Katherines lasted merely hours or days, and that they were girlfriends in just the very loosest definition of the word, but others lasted months and were real relationships. Is he only socially inept with everyone not named Katherine or Lindsey Lee? One last thing: I think it's a bit of a problem when the sidekick in the book has a stronger, more interesting personality than the protagonist

What did work for me was the friendship between Colin and Hassan and the development of the relationship between Colin and Lindsey. Hassan is a wonderful character, both warm and funny. Their friendship feels absolutely true, especially because Green tosses a few rough moments and home truths into the mix. Green also shows a deft hand with the Colin-Lindsey relationship. True, there's nothing particularly surprising about it. But I enjoyed watching as they learned that neither was quite all they seemed to be, and I enjoyed the banter between them. Best of all were the scenes in the cave.

Is this another Printz book for Green? I don't think so. Is it a Top Ten of 2006 kind of book? I don't think so. Is it a book that everyone will love? Probably not. But the right audience will enjoy this book for its humor as well as for its more thought-provoking moments. It's worth spending some time with Colin and his friends.

Edited on January 31 to say, "Shows what I know." Congratulations to John Green. KoA was named a Printz Award Honor book on January 22, 2007. Still, this decision is on my list of Things That Make You Go "Hmmmmmm."

Lines that caught my attention while reading:

The missing piece in his stomach hurt so much--and eventually he stopped thinking about the Theorem and wondered only how something that isn't there can hurt you.

Colin: You can love someone so much, he thought. But you can never love people as much as you can miss them.

Colin: Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they'll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back.

Katherine I to Colin: I think maybe you try to be odd on purpose. I think you like that. It makes you you and not someone else.
(This is on page 142, which also has a neat conversation about love and math (and French), which is too long to quote. But I like this quote because I think a lot of us do this at times.)

Colin, after tasting a swig of moonshine: ...Wow. Wow. Man. It's like French-kissing a dragon.

Lindsey: (She's saying that things about her boyfriend, Colin, and Hassan are either true or not true.) But I'm not like that. I'm what I need to be at any moment to stay above the ground but below the radar. The only sentence that begins with "I" that's true of me is I'm full of s*** ." (Green doesn't use asterisks, of course. Sorry. This is a work blog, and I have to observe certain boundaries. This section is too long to quote, but check out pp. 149-151 for the whole thing. I think Lindsey has more company in this than she thinks she has.)

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