I picked this book up on my travels from a Silent Meditation Retreat in Ubud, Bali. Reading a good book is like meditation for those of us whose minds won’t shut up. It’s something I know I should do more, especially as an English Literature graduate and as a writer. But in the age of social media, I find myself clicking on different articles deep into the night instead. That said, a good writer will keep you hooked enough to pull you away from such distractions.
I had read John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which rightfully brought him to critical acclaim (as well as a film deal). An Abundance of Katherines was first published ten years ago, but is seeing a revival now that Green is a bestselling author. I felt excited to start reading it, and I enjoyed it so much that I made sure I had a copy waiting for me when I returned home, in between jetting off to Spain, where I’m now living.
That said, I had reservations about reading it. I was turned off by the concept of the book that is evident in the title.
That said, I had reservations about reading it. I was turned off by the concept of the book that is evident in the title. The story’s central character is Colin, who is a “Dumpee”, and all nineteen of the girls he has dated have been called Katherine. The fact that they were given numbers, I found, dehumanised these characters, and meant they were not as rounded.
However, as well as Colin’s sidekick, Hassan (who Green should totally write a novel about), there are some great female characters. Mother Hollis and daughter and Lindsey Lee Wells are just as prominent, strong and interesting as their male counterparts. The dialogue is often really funny, and realistic enough to easily imagine this novel also being made into a film.
But it is not perfect. It is clear that we are meant to be sympathetic towards Colin, as Green states at the end of the book that he had a “fondness” towards him. He also admits he can be “annoying”. I was annoyed, to say the least, when I read the sentence: “She looked prettier than she ever had before—Colin always preferred girls without makeup.” At this point in the book, there’s a general feeling that something might happen between Lindsey Lee Wells and Colin. However, she is meant to be his friend, and he then goes on to compare her to his latest ex-Katherine, saying that “no one looked more beautiful without makeup than Katherine.” Not cool.
Perhaps one can argue that this is the character’s view, but when reading you get the feeling it is also the author wondering why do women wear makeup when they look so much better without it. BECAUSE IT’S NOT FOR YOU. These kind of lazy assumptions about gender are all too frequent, perpetuating a kind of sexism that goes both ways. We are also told that “boy-crying is exceedingly unattractive.” Again, you could argue that this is just the way that teenagers think, but if these beliefs aren’t ever questioned in literature, all you’re doing is reinforcing them.
There’s also the elephant in the room of Hollis’ tampon string factory. When the boys find out about this, Hassan finds it hilarious, yet Colin is almost scared of tampons, comparing them to “grizzly bears”. This fact is interesting and usual, maybe a little funny, but at this stage in the book, I wonder if Colin is going to learn and grow at all. I begin to hope so. There is a hint he might, when he thinks: “You can love someone so much… But you can never love people as much as you miss them.” This is a start, but the dots he hasn’t connected is that loving someone is about giving, whilst missing someone is more self-centred, the focus is on how you feel. Still, it is more of a “Eureka moment” than his attempts to predict relationship terminations on graphs. Still, he only comes to the realisation to stop theorising this in relation to him not being a genius. And even then, he ceases to stop.
Whilst it’s undeniable that Green is a skilled writer, unfortunately he still says some shockingly offensive things, even for a book that’s ten years old.
Whilst it’s undeniable that Green is a skilled writer, unfortunately he still says some shockingly offensive things, even for a book that’s ten years old. Despite the frequent “retard” comment being thrown around, I don’t think anything quite tops the following sentence: “They took off running like a couple of spastic marathoners.” When I was ten years old, back in 1999, people used this language. I would have thought by 2006, it wasn’t something that would be used so casually by a narrator. In a similar way, but arguably reflect the language of teenagers, is the internalised misogyny of Lindsey’s comment to Colin, “I don’t want you to look like a pussy.” Again, it is more that this seems not to be interrogated and almost accepted as fact that is grating. These things then make you wonder why the nurse is specified as a “male nurse”, and whether, if the nurse was a woman, if the gender would be stated at all.
In the end, the title is somewhat redeemed, as Colin dedicates a paragraph or so to each Katherine, and it is clear that he formed a meaningful connection with each of his failed relationships, and each girl is indeed an individual. Essentially, it is a coming-of-age book, and whilst there are problematic parts, Lindsay Lee Wells is just as strong a character as Colin; both are flawed, and human. I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading it, and it did have me hooked, but at the same time, we can do better than some of the attempts at humour littered throughout the novel if we want them to be more than merely mirrors that reflect society as it is, instead of vehicles for progress.
Featured image via TheOdysseyOnline