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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines - John Green

Out of John Green's more popular books from Looking for Alaska to Paper Towns, I figured An Abundance of Katherines was as ideal a starting point as any, less because it is among Green's least-reviewed works than because its blurb hit enough right notes for me to need no further convincing. A child prodigy just finished high school, more a fading star than a promising genius-to-be, consumed and spat out nineteen times over by the many-faced love named Katherine, now attempting to make sense of what his life has all meant, in the hopes of also divining what it holds in store for him? I was at a point in my life where, in my early-ish twenties and almost a year out of school, I felt not a little lost, so no surprise, then, that I was sold after reading about, roughly, what to expect, which is to say, other than the general plot, nothing much at all. More familiar with sci-fi and fantasy books, and occasionally with those from this or that genre, I started An Abundance of Katherines almost gingerly, trusting in the reviewers who liked it that I would come out on the other end sharing the same sentiment.

 

Do I? Well, that and then some. What surprises me is how good Green's writing is, at least for what he's writing about, and by those standards, it's a joy to read. That's not to say his use of language is anything revolutionary, but nor does it try to be, and that's what so refreshing about it. More to the point, Green's writing, straightforward yet colorful, perceptive as well as toeing the line between the conventional and adventurous, kept my attention well enough than I seldom, if ever, regretted reading a page, so it baffles me somewhat to see there are others who feel the opposite. Green's characters are most of them given as much to do as their roles call for, and so when even the seemingly irrelevant characters take center stage, they don't outstay their welcome, and Green creates interesting enough stories for them, and lends enough weight to their relationships with the main characters, that we don't mind them much. The main characters—Colin the lovesick child prodigy and Hassan the irreverent Muslim best friend, with Lindsey the multifaceted love interest coming in later on—with their human and well-defined personalities, are what gives the story its shine, as the majority of it consists of talking, most of which are rather lively. Case in point: Colin and Hassan's relationship means such exchanges as

"I mean, I always sort of thought you were gay,” Colin acknowledged.
“I might be gay if I had a better-looking best friend,” said Hassan.
“And I might be gay if I could locate your penis under the fat rolls.”
“Bitch, I could gain five hundred pounds and you could still see Thunderstick hanging to my knees.”


are commonplace. While the above example isn't the most sophisticated piece of language ever devised, no one, least of all me, is asking for one, and besides, in context, it's funnier and not so one-dimensional.

Then there's the mathy aspect of the story, and it's what drives Colin for most of the book to at once achieve that long-coveted "Eureka!" moment, which he feels is a prerequisite for graduating from child prodigy to genius, and find love. Instead of getting too technical, Green manages not to alienate even me, never one to excel at mathematics but still one to be fascinated by it when comprehension eventually comes, by explaining Colin's process of proving his Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability in layman's terms, which is made easier when he deploys Lindsey, also not terribly well-versed in the subject, as a middleman for readers like myself to try to understand what Colin's up to. And apparently, most impressively, the math checks out, as Green didn't merely magic up the numbers, but had Daniel Biss, his friend the American mathematician, make everything legitimate. The appendix, written by Biss, gets even mathier, but is surprisingly very readable. As fascinating as the mathematical side of the book is, it remains a plot device, which Green knows never to abuse, and thankfully never overwhelms the larger story.

Even if I thought its ending to be rather lacking in any groundbreaking insight, and too obvious in its conclusion, An Abundance of Katherines has enough points going for it that I wouldn't have chosen any differently when I picked the book to be my first taste of Green's works. Imagine my anticipation, then, for his other, more notable books. It's reassuring to know that, as much as I enjoyed this book, it's technically Green at his worst, so for me, knock on wood, there isn’t much place else to go but upwards.