Love at first anagram: a review of An Abundance of Katherines

Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they’ll wait for your forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back.

I’ve been a fan of John Green ever since I started watching the Vlogbrothers videos on YouTube. Looking for Alaska is my favorite out of the three (and counting) that I’ve read, including Paper Towns and most recently An Abundance of Katherines. It might not rank first with me, but An Abundance of Katherines possesses merits that are undeniably strong. This is a young adult book with a surprising amount of depth but one that reads lightly.

For the most part, anyway. Green tries his best not to bog the book down with the equations that his protagonist, Colin Singleton, devises in his attempt to calculate the future outcome of all romantic relationships—specifically his chances with the many Katherines he’s dated and hopes to continue to date. You see, Colin Singleton is a borderline genius—a prodigy who knows more languages than he has fingers, loves to anagram, finds everything and anything fascinating, and above all is terrified of not mattering.

After Katherine XIX dumps him, his friend Hassan takes him on a road trip that leads them to Gutshot, Tennessee, the resting place of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—who was shot in the middle (a word that Green cleverly uses given the book’s context), leaving the same kind of gaping, empty hole that Colin feels he has without a Katherine in his life. Their adventure introduces them to a strange girl named Lindsey Lee Wells, who adapts her demeanor to whomever she’s with but who’s smarter than she lets on, and together they come unwittingly into a summer job, seating them across from the elderly of Gutshot in an effort to record their lives and memories of working for the town’s only factory.

As always, Green has a knack for crafting dialogue and a story that feels genuine to his audience. But the real worth here is found in Colin Singleton and his unmistakable need to matter—to be a genius, not just a prodigy. The novel beautifully unravels why he’s so obsessed with being the best, speaking more greatly to the human condition of loneliness. Colin might be a super intelligent nerd who’s painfully awkward in social situations, but he grapples with many of the same issues that the rest of us do.

More importantly, I think, is what Green is trying to say not only about the fear of relationships, and letting someone get close, but relationships in general: that we can’t go through life expecting to date only Katherines or Colins. When we put stipulations on who the right person is, we never find the right person at all because we’re looking for someone of unreasonable expectations—a kind of expectations that prevent people from truly falling in love with another human being. Some people say we find love when we stop looking, and for me, at least, that’s held absolutely true. My boyfriend doesn’t have striking blue eyes and a body like a Calvin Klein model, but he does make me happy (and he’s very handsome).

An Abundance of Katherines is also about letting yourself make mistakes, an act many of us never do out of anxiety for what might happen. Sound silly? It is.

The book is also about storytelling—mostly because Colin lacks proper foresight. For all his intelligence, he can’t understand why he’s fallen into the same disastrous pattern and why he’s intent to stay in it. Green establishes a noteworthy literary framework here, connecting the parts together at the end, when things finally make sense for the characters.

It’s about having confidence in ourselves—being okay with who we are and understanding that being “special” is not nearly as important as being present in the world. We have to live, really live, in it.

An infinitesimal change. And that infinitesimal change ripples outward—ever smaller but everlasting.