An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

I enjoy John Green’s writing and beyond that I appreciate Green as a human being. He and brother Hank Green developed the Crash Course series on YouTube which has now been picked up by PBS. They’ve helped make humanities and science more understandable and interesting for young people and I enjoyed following along on John Green’s series on U.S. and World History.

That said, there’s a certain predictability to Green’s young adult books. Quirky, clever, outsider boy spends times with equally quirky friends, meets interesting girl who sees through the quirkiness to the good person within, bonding ensues. Given that the ending isn’t always a happy ending it’s still an inspiring ending. Having been a quirky boy with a small cadre of friends myself I get the attraction and appreciate Green’s campaign to show that there’s hope even for the nerdy and geeky.

I’m not saying the formula is dead but this particular book, though a fun read, seems more contrived than most. Quirky, clever, outsider boy Colin Singleton has just broken up with a Katherine. To be exact, the 19th relationship with a Katherine to have imploded on him since a kiss and a few-hour love with Katherine 1. He claims to have not noticed that there was a pattern of Katherines until #10, and that before that he was just interested in making out.

Colin is a voracious reader and, as with many Green characters, isn’t afraid of tackling challenging books. The book opens with a quote from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and the book is filled with references to Camus, Byron, and other writers beyond the ken or interest of most high school boys. The book makes prominent use of “fug” “fugging” “fugger” because Colin and Hassan like Norman Mailer*. He’s also gifted at anagrams and some of this Katherines’ names have ominous scrambles like “Heart Breaker, Inc.” He’s also a whiz at languages and a collector of odd facts, mostly because nearly everything interests him and seems to connect to something else.

After the breakup Colin and his best friend Hassan, chunky quirky Lebanese confidant, decide to take a road trip that eventually takes them to a small town called Gutshot, Tennessee. There he meets a non-Katherine named Lindsay, whose family’s mills have provided employment to most of the locals for generations. While Colin tries to work out the math to predict future breakups will Lindsay see past the exterior quirkiness to the loveable Colin within?

Green’s books often deal, along with the exterior romance, with fairly deep human issues including mortality. This book lacks a lot of the deeper tension of books like Paper Towns and without that seems to try to get by on romance and dialogue alone. Maybe, having read him before, the reader can make some assumptions about how the romance will turn out. So we get left with oddball characters in the small town, a fight, an adventure with a feral pig, and a secret that doesn’t have much punch when revealed.

I enjoyed the book, it just doesn’t have the power of Green’s other writings. I checked the ratings at GoodReads where readers (including more female fans than I would have expected) either rated it very high or very low with little middle ground. If you’re gift-giving for a reader new to Green this might be a place to start because moving to other books from here will be a happy surprise. But someone starting with The Fault in Our Stars or Paper Towns could find this book a real disappointment.

(*I can’t believe Green passed on one of my favorite Dorothy Parker quotes. Meeting Mailer after the publication of The Naked and the Dead Parker greeted Mailer with: “So, you’re the young man who can’t spell ‘fuck’.”)