Book review: We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra

Title: We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 14 May 2019

Genre: Contemporary| Young Adult

Page extent: 377 pages

Goodreads blurb: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets I’ll Give You the Sun in an exhilarating and emotional novel about the growing relationship between two teen boys, told through the letters they write to one another.

Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky are partnered in English class, writing letters to one another in a weekly pen pal assignment. With each letter, the two begin to develop a friendship that eventually grows into love. But with homophobia, bullying, and devastating family secrets, Jonathan and Kurl struggle to overcome their conflicts and hold onto their relationship…and each other.

This rare and special novel celebrates love and life with engaging characters and stunning language, making it perfect for fans of Jandy Nelson, Nina LaCour, and David Levithan.

Please note this review contains spoilers.

Content warnings: homophobia, abuse, cheating, consent issues

Well this is a book I struggled to rate. I’m still not sure of my rating and at any moment could drop it down. 

We Contain Multitudes had so much potential. It could have been incredible. It contains some interesting perspectives on trauma, brilliant prose, some good characters… Unfortunately problematic content really let this down. Just because prose is lovely doesn’t mean you get a free pass to include shitty things.

We Contain Multitudes follows Kurl and Jo, as they write letters to each other, after being paired in a penpal assignment. Kurl is re-doing his senior year. He’s a football star and gets in fights. Quintisentially Tough Guy. Jo is a 15-year-old, openly gay Walt Whitman fan. He dresses as Walt, talks like Walt, and writes like Walt. We read Jo and Kurl’s letters as they open up to each other, and slowly become more than just penpals.

First off, let’s start with what I liked. As I said, it does have a brilliant writing style. It was beautifully written, I really liked the voice of the whole book. Whilst I don’t think the prose really reflects the way teens write, it was beautiful. I enjoyed the way the book is written as a series of letters between the two main characters. It’s the first time I’ve read a book like this and I did really like it, more than I thought I would! It was a little repetitive at times as each character recounted the same events to each other in letter, but not too massively. I liked seeing Jo and Kurl as they got to know each other. Kurl helped Jo become more confident in himself and who he was, whilst Jo helped Kurl face his trauma and abuse he has suffered.

But. But. But. 

Throughout the book, there are some uncomfortable and unaddressed issues towards consent. First, when Kurl is drunk with Jo; secondly the horrific and completely unnecessary drunk sister cheating scene (which is problematic for a whole host of reasons and is where this book lost me for good). Both these events don’t ever really address the lack of consent involved; it’s just seemingly brushed over as okay and forgiven and neither is properly even acknowledged as ‘this is not consent’. 

In addition, god I don’t even know where to start with the cheating scene. Another event just never addressed, sister never apologises, it’s just brushed over and forgiven by everyone. These characters already had issues before this moment, and it really wasn’t needed. It felt very much added for shock value as opposed to actually impacting the story. Add to the fact it literally isn’t resolved, his sister never apologises or even addresses the events, pretends to be Kurls gf, ugh it’s just not good and I didn’t care at all how the story ended after it happened. I just wanted to stop reading completely. 

I also want to mention the age of the characters – at 15 and 18, this is a little problematic and really, I don’t think there would be any huge issues if the characters has been closer in age. Or at least Jo had been older than 15. 

I am quite disappointed in this book. I really did enjoy the first third of the book; loved the prose and style; but sorry, I just couldn’t get past this content. 

Paws out,
Rach + Draco

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