Synopsis: When Colin Singleton, a self-absorbed, anxiety-ridden, former child prodigy, gets dumped for the nineteenth time on the day after he graduates high school, he decides to hit the road with his only friend, Hassan. On a mission to develop a mathematical theory that will prevent future relational misery even as it proves, once and for all, that he is a genius, Colin and his friend are in for the ride of their lives. Filled with quirky locales, oddball characters and more than a touch of teenage angst, An Abundance of Katherines is a wonderfully layered comedic novel about the power to create new stories amidst both the splendor and ruins of the old.
Review: A little over a month ago, on the recommendation of three former students, I picked up a copy of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (book review). Upon finishing the book in under 24 hours, I was so taken with Green’s deft characterizations and elegant prose, that I immediately went online to purchase four additional books that he had written. When they arrived, I decided to start with An Abundance of Katherines for three simple reasons: (1) it had the distinction of being the least favorably reviewed of his works, (2) I loved the title, and (3), the cover contained a footnote – something I had never seen before.
So how does the book stand up in comparison to The Fault in Our Stars? Well, to be honest, I don’t think that’s a terribly fair question. For starters, the two books could not be farther apart in tone. Whereas The Fault in Our Stars is a rich exploration of the interior lives of two cancer-stricken teenagers battling with their own impending mortality, An Abundance of Katherines is light novel centered on a spoiled, too-often-annoying protagonist who is so self-focused and emotionally needy that he can’t seem to get out of his own way. It’s like asking someone to compare Saving Private Ryan to Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Both are great films, but they’re great in completely different ways.
Having said that, there is a benefit to having read these two books back-to-back as I did. For by reading them in such close proximity to one another, we can see the differences between them – differences that actually help to highlight the strength of the latter novel. Think about it. As a reader, how much freedom do you really have to dislike a young character who is struggling with cancer? Even if the character was a complete tool, wouldn’t you feel the pressure to dismiss their bad behavior on the grounds that they are suffering under immense pressure? I think most of us would.
Now consider the opposite scenario. Consider a book where the central character is so annoying that you often feel for his friend who has to put up with his insecurities and selfish behavior on a daily basis. How difficult is it for an author to take such a character and walk him through the life experiences that will ultimately shape him and mold him into a more confident, more likeable individual?
While I can see why An Abundance of Katherines is considered to be a minor work in Green’s growing canon, I actually enjoyed the book a great deal. Sometimes, absurdist comedy can touch on things in a way that the most serious of tomes can never attempt. And while I doubt that An Abuandance of Katherines will ever become a “classic,” I’m glad to have read it as it was an enjoyable diversion that I suspect many teenagers would resonate with if they were truly honest about their own insecurities and fears.
One final note for those who are concerned about the “content” of the book. If An Abundance of Katherines were a film, I suspect it would be rated PG-13 for language and sexuality.
Opening Passage: “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 took a bath. Colin had always preferred baths; one of his general policies in life was never to do anything standing up that could just as easily be done lying down.”
Title: An Abundance of Katherines
Author: John Green
Category: Fiction, Young Adult
Length: 272 pages
Publication Date: 21 September 2006
Notable Achievements: Printz Honor