What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?
For my upcoming thirtieth birthday a friend bought me a pair of books by John Green: The Fault in Our Stars (possibly the most talked about young adult novel of 2014) and An Abundance of Katherines (much less discussed and Green’s worst-selling book to date). [i] At the risk of being labelled anti-popularist I must admit that I enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines slightly more than its bestselling follow up. While An Abundance is somewhat less plot-driven than The Fault in Our Stars, it is stranger, funnier, and more quietly philosophical.
An Abundance of Katherines is the story of Colin Singleton, a 17-year-old prodigy who has had his heart broken nineteen times by nineteen different girls named Katherine. Katherine Number 19 dumps him at the very end of his high school career, leaving Colin staring down a long summer of moping and anagramming (two of the things he does best). His best friend Hassan (a Muslim with a love of something called a Monster Thickburger from Hardee’s) suggests a road trip, and the coming-of-age adventure begins. Intrigued by a sign advertising the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s grave the boys end up in the wonderfully named town of Gutshot, Tennessee. It is here they meet Lindsey Lee Wells (paramedic in training) and her mother Hollis (owner of a local factory that produces tampon strings). While in Gutshot Colin attempts to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, a mathematical formula that can foretell the outcome of any relationship. Proving the Theorem, Colin hopes, will not only explain his nineteen failed relationships but also show that he is capable of doing something remarkable, something that matters.
The structure of An Abundance is, in many ways, common to the YA genre: the end of school, a road trip, the identity-moulding freedom of summer. It is what Green does within this familiar format that I found interesting. I enjoyed the way he uses footnotes to explore Colin’s character; the clever banter between Colin and Hassan (they almost have their own language); and the flashbacks to Colin’s plethora of past romantic relationships. An Abundance is a novel of very little action and quite a bit of introspection, however the use of maths (the Theorem really works: it was developed by mathematician Daniel Bliss for the novel) is an interesting way of illustrating Colin’s efforts to figure out who he is.
I did find the ending a little unsatisfying (as is often the case with largely uneventful, thoughtful novels); I wanted less repetition of Colin’s existential revelations and more about how the other characters (by the end of the novel we have been introduced to quite a number of Gutshot residents) were getting on. I also felt like the theme (established early on) of story – how and why we tell stories and their importance – got a bit lost.
I really started to enjoy An Abundance a little over halfway through the book. I was beginning to get a little bored, particularly with Lindsey Lee Wells’s character. But then, on page 148, Lindsey says this:
The thing about chameleoning your way through life is that it gets to where nothing is real … 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 shit.
It was here that I realised An Abundance is a novel that considers identity in a much more complicated way than whether or not somebody (Colin) is a genius or just very smart. For young people (and adults) the question is not ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Which am I?’ Which of the identities we create for ourselves is the most authentic? The answer, I think, is the identity we choose; the one we like the most. In the same way, we decide what makes us remarkable: “What matters to you” Colin discovers, “defines your mattering.”
An Abundance of Katherines is itself remarkable in its unremarkable-ness. In many ways a classic and predictable YA novel, An Abundance re-imagines important themes of ‘specialness’ and identity. While it lags a little in the middle and right at the end, An Abundance is engaging, amusing, and thoughtful, and deserves at least as much attention as The Fault in Our Stars.
An Abundance of Katherines was first published in 2006. It was the 2007 Michael L. Printz Honor book, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. John Green’s other novels include Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan). You can read John Green’s thoughts on An Abundance of Katherines at his website.
[i] Just for the record, since it seems to be something of a contentious issue in the literary world at the moment, I enjoy reading (well-written) young adult novels. In case anyone’s interested, I also like well-written books for five-year-olds, and well-written books for regular adults.