Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

The Plot: Colin Singleton was a child prodigy; he's no longer a child, so what is he? Who is he? He's someone who just graduated high school and longs to be more than a prodigy (a quick learner); he wants to be a genius (someone who actually does something.) He's also only dated girls named Katherine (with that specific spelling); and he's always been the person dumped. His best friend convinces him there is only one answer to his problems: Road Trip!

The Good: In my review of The Lightning Thief, remember how I mentioned that you sometimes need to know how to read a book? Green's book is a mix of over the top humor and everyday life. Over the top: Colin, who wants to be part of a couple, bears the ironic last name of Singleton. Colin and Hassan end up in a town with a factory that makes tampon strings. But beyond that humor, there is a serious story here.

"As Colin had explained to Hassan countless times, there's a stark difference between the words prodigy and genius. Prodigies can very quickly learn what other people have figured out; geniuses discover what no one has ever previously discovered. Prodigies learn; geniuses do." As I read this, I thought of all those kids who are told over and over that they are smart because they test well, are early readers, are, as Colin is, a quick learner. But will they ever be more, as Colin yearns to be more? Are parents obsessed with the what will make that child a happier person? A successful person? Because as Colin/Green points out, many child prodigies do not deliver; they are quick learners, but that never translates to anything other than ordinariness as an adult.

I've been thinking recently of books with characters I don't like, and I really admire the writer who has a character that I like in the book, yet know I wouldn't like in person. Does that mean that I'm seduced by the main character to overlook those traits I would find irritating as hell? Or does it mean I should be more forgiving of those people in real life? See, Colin is one self centered teen. (And again -- self centered, but unlike that other book, hugely likable.). Was Colin always this way, or is it a result of having been labeled a prodigy? "You're a very special person. Colin would hear this a lot, and yet -- somehow -- he could never hear it enough."
"[Being teased and bullied] made him feel like no one liked him, which, in fact, no one did. His single consolation was that one day, he would matter. He'd be famous. And none of them ever would." As I read this, I thought back on guys I've dated with that same neediness that can almost be overwhelming; I thought how lucky Colin is to have Hassan to try to shake him out of that self centeredness and neediness; and I thought, thank goodness Colin looks for fame by creating or discovering.

Colin decides that he is going to create a formula that will predict when any couple will break up, including who will be the dumper and who the dumpee. And here is what is great about Green and this book: yes, there is the mathiness.

Part of what keeps Colin from being too self centered is his friend Hassan, who is not afraid to call Colin "a self centered asshole." And Colin is. But the greatness of John Green is that Colin remains likable; Hassan may think that, Colin may act like that, but Colin is likable, and a reader almost doesn't' realize how self centered in until Hassan states it. John gives us plenty of clues; hell, Colin's theorem is based entirely on his own dating relationships because if its true for him, it's true for everyone!

One of Colin's obsessions is anagrams. They are in the book, and Green has a link to an anagram generator. I used my full first name and last name to come up with Thin Blue Zebras. Pretty cool.

Other points: Green gets around the bad language issue by having Colin and Hassan be the type of teens who say fug; and its not Green making that substitution but Colin & Hassan. Hassan may be the coolest sidekick ever; he's overweight and doesn't really care, he's a great friend to Colin but has his own life, he's a religious Muslim who doesn't believe in sex before marriage, and he is funny.

Green is great at an opening line: "The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he too a bath."

Reading is believing and rather than saying Green is funny and so is his book, here is the proof:

"Mother's lie. It's in the job description."

"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."

"For minutes, as they rean in random directions, the buzzing continued, Colin always following behind Hassan, because the only thing worse than getting stung to death in south central Tennessee when your parents don't even know you're on a hog hunt is dying alone."

"You know what I hate? The outdoors."

I think that Katherines is a deceptive book; deceptive in that it appears to be just a road trip story, just a romance, just a comedy. It is all those things, and all those things done very well; but it's also a look at how we view ourselves and how we treat people. It's about Colin no longer thinking it's all about him.

Links: my interview with John Green.

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