Books: We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra

Mpepper/ May 19, 2021/ Reviews

I didn’t like it, then I did, then I didn’t again.

The set-up: high school sophomore Jonathan Hopkirk (“Jo,” age 15 at the start of the book but 16 by the end of it) and repeat senior Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky (18) are assigned by their English Lit teacher to write letters to one another. Jo idolizes Walt Whitman, dresses in vintage clothing, plays the mandolin, and is the target of bullies. He’s out, but not particularly proud, just doesn’t see any point in hiding it. Kurl is a beefy football star from a Polish family that doesn’t consider academics all that important. Girls swoon for him, but he’s not interested. And of course they fall in love.

That’s no spoiler, and I won’t detail the secondary family dramas that might be considered spoilers. This is a NO SPOILER review.

For the first 20ish pages, I wasn’t digging it. I didn’t like either character. Maybe that’s on purpose. Maybe Henstra was demonstrating that each boy was sort of putting on a front or persona in their early letters to one another. That’s reasonable; they’d be likely to do that, given they’ve been tasked with writing to more or less a complete stranger. (Side note: I never had an English Lit teacher that taught both 10th and 12th grade? And none of the teachers at my kids’ high school do either. I had the same English Lit teacher for both 11th and 12th grade, but that’s because he was the AP teacher, so… I dunno. I didn’t completely buy the idea that this teacher taught both 10th and 12th grade Lit.)

Thing is, Jo is presented from the start as someone who is “open.” But maybe the truth was that the “openness” was just part of the persona all along? Or I’m trying to make this book deep when it ain’t.

I’m no big fan of Walt Whitman myself. I love the Romantics and have a healthy respect for the Transcendentalists (which got me ribbed in high school in my own right, but also meant the teacher selected me to be Thoreau in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, so pffft). Somehow, though, Walt just turns me off. I dunno. And there’s a lot of him in this book, which is pretty gimmicky, but I tolerated it. And there’s plenty else going on, too.

By which I mean sex. And that made me a bit… I don’t want to say uncomfortable because that makes me sound prudish, and I’m not. It was more that Jo is 15? And Kurl is 18. And that doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but it feels like a lot? My oldest is 15, and if he started dating an 18yo (girl or guy), I’d be like: what does an 18yo want with a 15yo? You know? A lot happens between those ages.

I think maybe we’re supposed to believe Jo is mature for his age and Kurl is a bit stunted in some ways. But it’s still weird.

There are some mechanical issues with the book as well. It’s epistolary, of course, but in order to tell the story, Jo and Kurl must write to each other everything that has happened—even when they were both present for any given event. Henstra hangs a lampshade on it by having them say in their letters that, yeah, it’s weird that they feel the need to write it all out, but that admission doesn’t quite excuse the clunkiness of the device. “And you said abc,” one of them will write, “and then I told you xyz.” Yeah, he knows, he was there? Like, I dunno, it just didn’t quite work for me. I think if things were phrased more as, “Remember when you said abc? I know I said xyz, but here’s what I was thinking/feeling…” And there is a bit of that, but too often the letters just rehash events for the benefit of the reader rather than feel authentic and natural.

Also: voice. By the end of the book I could kind of hear the distinction between Jo and Kurl, but it still wasn’t strong enough for my liking. That’s a subjective, nitpicky thing, I know. But I sometimes had to go back to the salutation of the letter to remind myself who was writing, and that tells me that there wasn’t as strong a difference between the characters as there maybe should have been.

In the end I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads (though I mentioned it was maybe a 3.5). I didn’t like the characters at first, then the book got kind of sweet, and then it fell off into pure teen soap melodrama and began to drag. The ending didn’t really do anything for me, either. I saw it going one way, and that felt like the natural progression, but then it U-turned and… Meh. There were some great moments, though, and I think parts of this book will stay with me for sure. So it’s not a total dud.

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