Hello, hello! This Friday’s review is something a little different: this week, I finished my first ever buddy read on the blog – yay! Becca and I were joined by Kayla to get stuck into this 2006 John Green novel.
Now back in the day (2012), I read The Fault In Our Stars at the tender age of 16 in one sitting and sobbed my hormonal little heart out. At this time, Green was still the King of YA so I tracked down as many of his books as possible and devoured them too. However, with each reading unease rose a little bit; reoccurring tropes jarred with me, the nonsensical logic of whatever manic pixie dreamgirl caricature featured was irritating, and I kind of wanted every ‘quirky’ boy narrator to just be quite for five minutes please.
The internet continues to be divided on whether Green is a literature god or a problematic high school boy in adult form, but this book has been on my shelf for year after I denounced myself from Green’s work so I decided to give it a go. Becca noticed it on my Beat The Backlist post and suggested a buddy read, then Kayla found us on twitter and joined in.
An Abundance of Katherines follows newly graduated high school friends Colin and Hassan on a summer roadtrip. Hassan is overweight, lazy and proud of it; Colin was a child prodigy who thinks he has lost his chance of greatness and is also getting over his most recent breakup with a girl named Katherine – the 19th in a line of girlfriends who all have the same name. After stopping in a Tennessee town, Colin and Hassan get summer work from a tampon string factory owner and become friendly with her daughter Lindsey Lee Wells. Nursing heartbreak, loneliness and lack of potential, these three teenagers should have nothing in common, but find a kinship that lasts the hot summer days working in Gutshot.
I’d like to begin by pointing out that this novel was written in 2006 – thirteen years ago. As a society, I think we’ve come on leaps and bounds (but definitely still not enough!!) when it comes to our treatment of certain topics such as women, sexuality and people of colour. While reading this several things popped out at me that I know would definitely not or certainly shouldn’t get published in a YA novel today.
During the boys’ first meeting with Lindsey Lee Wells, Colin injures his head so she whips off her shirt to make a compress before going to get a first aid kit. Firstly, nope. Secondly, this conversation occurs while she is away as Colin can’t see without his glasses:
“I was just asking myself that question when the girl took her shirt off.”
“So you couldn’t see her?”
“I couldn’t see her. Just that her bra was purple.”
“Was it ever.” Hassan replied.
Gross, gross, GROSS. Listen, I know most heterosexual teenage boys are obsessed with boobs, but was this necessary? Lindsey is training to be a paramedic so she knows her stuff when it comes to injuries – instead of marvelling that this eighteen year old girl reacted quickly, came up with an on-the-spot solution to help and then went to get further equipment only when she was sure it was safe to leave, the boys are just like ‘oMg DiD yOu SeE hEr BrA?????’.
These boys are both referenced to being pretty damn smart so it would have been nice to see them be respectful of Lindsey’s privacy while she tried to stop Colin’s head from bleeding, especially since the only reason her shirt was being used was because Hassan refused to lend his instead. Additionally, they have literally just met this girl – maybe get her name before ogling her?
Also, here’s an exchange after Colin and Hassan have a conversation in Arabic (which they do when they are in company and want to confer with each other privately):
“Is that some kind of gibberish?” Lindsey interrupted, incredulous.
“We are not speaking gibberish. We’re speaking the sacred language of the Qur’an, the language of great calipha and Saladin, the most beautiful and intricate of all human tongues.”
“Well, it sounds like a raccoon clearing it’s throat.” Lindsey noted.
This casual racism is never mentioned again and no one calls Lindsey out on it. What!!!! WHAT!!!!! That’s not okay!!!! She said a shitty thing and she should be told so. Even worse, Colin ‘stops to ponder this’, validating her statement when in reality he should be going ‘hey that’s really rude, just because you don’t understand something doesn’t make it stupid.’
Even though Hassan mentions what he does in the above quote, he is constantly joking and its clear his response is sarcastic or melodramatic rather than actually getting Lindsey to check herself. If you’re going to feature characters who make racist remarks, then as an author you should really make sure that is is acknowledged somewhere that its wrong, especially in YA which is aimed at teenagers. I know books were a huge part of me developing opinions on the world and society around me and I would hope most teenagers today are well aware of the issues surrounding race all over the world, but it still makes me a cringe a little to think of someone young and impressionable reading this and thinking throwaway comments like this are okay as long as you have a funny punchline.
Oh, yeah, onto this gem:
Whereas girls are very fickle about the business of kissing. Sometimes they want to make out; sometimes they don’t. They’re an impenetrable fortress of unknowability, really.
Ergo, girls should always make the first move because, (a) they are, on the whole, less likely to be rejected than guys and (b) that way, girls will never be kissed unless they want to be kissed.
Alternatively, LEARN WHAT CONSENT IS. That’s it, that’s the analysis.
I also really had a problem with the characters’ likeability because, uh, I didn’t like any of them. As I said to Bex on day one(!!) of our buddy read, I can’t believe this guy got 19 girls to date him, never mind their name. Her response? ‘OH MY GOD, YEAH? I INSTANTLY DIDN’T LIKE HIM.’ Considering he’s the protagonist, who we’re supposed to root for and sympathise with as he nurses a broken heart, he’s kind of a dick. The first time he meets Lindsey’s friends, he pretends to be French just to mess with them. He comes up with nicknames for them all instead of using their actual names because… well, I don’t know? Laziness? Superiority? He is constantly whining to Hassan about his broken heart, not realising that he never asks his best (and only) friend about his personal life.
Not that Hassan is any better – he constantly cuts Colin off to tell him what he’s saying is ‘not interesting’ (Colin finds everything interesting) and supposedly is giving him an ongoing life lesson on what he should and should not talk about. If Hassan didn’t do this, maybe Colin would actually be more likeable!
It’s painful how Green has tried to give his characters quirks to the point where he forgot to add a personality for them to link to. Hassan is ‘fat’, he is ‘lazy’ and he is ‘funny’. That doesn’t make a human being. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters because I couldn’t actually find them underneath their walking, talking stereotypes.
John Green has often been criticised for having his male protagonists need a girl to save them. In this novel, he oh-so-cleverly turns that trope on its head by having the girl needs the boy to save her! Yes, Lindsey openly admits that she has never felt like she is truly being herself until she meets Colin. A boy she has known less than four weeks. Okay.
Oh man. This book wasn’t all bad, but it was bad enough that I can’t focus or remember any of the good bits. I think my biggest problem is that it’s a dated piece of literature – YA has moved on to cover so much more in such better ways. That’s not to say that today’s novels don’t have problems, but we’re more open in discussing them and are less likely to find random bouts of misogyny and racism sprinkled throughout the pages – if publishers don’t catch them, sensitivity readers or early reviewers generally do.
If you’re a fan of John Green, then that’s fine! I apologise for slating this book, but it just didn’t sit well with me at all. But I also think he was dethroned as King of YA long ago; we have new royalty now, like Patrick Ness, Holly Bourne, Leigh Bardugo, Jenny Han, Nicola Yoon, Angie Thomas, Sally Nicholls… the list goes on. These authors have probably had their messy moments too, but they work on bringing to life characters who are diverse in their sexuality, gender and race and teach us about them without being preachy.
My friend Michaela saw David Levithan (who co-wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson with Green) at a talk and when I was talking about this book with her, she mentioned that he said he was constantly trying to push further with his writing. Yes, he wrote a book about a gay teenager nine years ago and nine years ago, a gay teenager might have picked that up and been so pleased to finally see himself in those pages and he was super happy about that. But today, more is rightly expected so he continues to write so that everyone can see themselves in his books, rather than be stuck in the same tropes he was a decade ago. And I think its time John Green caught up and did the same.