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Book Review: Catalyst, by Laurie Halse Anderson November 14, 2008

Posted by LHK in book reviews.
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Catalyst paperback cover

Catalyst paperback cover. I have this one, and it's signed now!

When she’s “Good Kate,” Kate Malone dutifully attends track practice, makes straight A’s, gets a thrill out of ironing the clean laundry, and smiles through her minister father’s sermons. When she’s “Bad Kate,” though, she goes out on midnight runs, or lusts after her boyfriend, or resents the responsibilities she has to take for her asthmatic brother. Catalyst explores the clash between Kate’s two sides while chronicling the last few months of her senior year in high school.

Her breaking point is finding out that her dream school, MIT — which is, in fact, the only school to which she applied — has rejected her. And that her classmates in AP Chemistry were betting against her acceptance. Ouch. Worse, the combination of a fire at the Litches’ house down the street and Kate’s father’s generosity means that Kate’s grade-school nemesis, Teri Litch, is now taking up residence in the Malone house. And more specifically, in Kate’s bedroom. A tragic accident derails Kate’s future plans even further, and alters her focus and her mindset.

When I heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak the other night (which rocked! which means photos and more discussion of said event are to come!), she talked about how Catalyst was meant to (subtly) underline the phenomenon of first-world teens being so bloody straight-lined toward one path of success — that is, the path of taking all AP classes, getting at least X score on your SATs, going to a prestigious college, and eventually getting a job that makes you a lot of money. She mentioned visiting a school in Michigan where the afternoon announcements featured a list of the most recent college acceptances for graduating seniors. Imagine the pressure. But Ms. Anderson wasn’t sitting in an AP class at the time she heard the daily college announcements; rather, she was in a vocational class where the usual troublemakers and (perceived) underachievers had been sent. One of the girls in the class, briefing Ms. Anderson on the social structure of the school, said, “They don’t mention us on the announcements. They don’t care about us.” This girl was part of the inspiration for Teri Litch.

Another cover (the hardback, maybe?). I like this one better.

Another cover (the hardback, maybe?). I like this one better.

Kate’s character trajectory in Catalyst is predictable, though comfortingly so. If you read the first few pages, you’ll see there’s little else for her to do but come closer down to Earth. And it is a relief when she does, although the journey is difficult.

One of my favorite things about Laurie Halse Anderson’s books are the seemingly mundane details of teenage life that become sneakily revelatory when put in just the right spot. I loved Kate’s experience of getting her first pair of contact lenses and realizing just how many things she wasn’t able to see before. (This happened to me, too. I was thirteen, and I had no idea that I should have been able to see individual blades of grass in the yard when I looked out my bedroom window.) I love Kate’s annoyance and fear at having to merge onto the highway. I love how the school is so overcrowded that seniors have to take lunch period so early in the morning that doughnuts and coffee are served.

A good book. I’d say I liked it better than Twisted, but not as much as Speak. And remember how I was worried that my own novel mirrored Catalyst in some annoyingly coincidental ways? Well, it’s not as bad as I thought, though I think I’ll need to make sure Mitchell is a soccer player instead of a distance runner. And reading Catalyst made me rethink Mitchell’s quest to go to Harvard. A-revising we will go.

***

I think my “currently reading” box is way outdated, or at least not complete. Right now I’m reading Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, which is don’t-want-it-to-end-but-can’t-stop-reading-it fantastic.

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