In Catalyst, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Kate Malone has a lot to be worried about. She’s a science geek, her father is a pastor, and they don’t understand each other; her mother is dead; her boyfriend (Mitch “Early Decision Harvard” Pangborn) is in the humanities, yuck. But worse than all this is that her plan to escape — to be accepted to her own holy temple, MIT, the place she’s been gunning for all her life — may be about to fail (and she didn’t apply to any backup schools.)
Kate deals with the stress by dividing herself into Good Kate (irons the shirts, makes the lunches, makes sure her little brother gets his asthma medicine) and Bad Kate (inwardly sarcastic, rude, selfish, and cowardly.) And she runs. Nothing like a cross-country trek in the rain to get rid of a little MIT-related anxiety.
But then something comes into her life that she can’t run away from — not inside her head, and not in her sneakers. Teri Litch, hopelessly unpopular and hostile, moves into Kate’s bedroom when the Litch house burns down, along with little two-year-old Mikey Litch. Suddenly, with this catalyst, the careful boundaries between Good Kate and Bad Kate don’t mean much anymore. And when one final event puts Kate’s anxieties into perspective for good, it’s unclear how any of her life’s experiments will turn out.
I complained about the last Laurie Halse Anderson book I read (Fever 1793) that it was kind of wishy-washy, without the power and the edge that Speak had for me. Catalyst has that power and that edge. It speaks to real, raw emotion and real concerns, and it’s funny. I always like smart heroines, and driven, type-A girls aren’t common in literature (Harriet the Spy, anyone?) I like it when smarts aren’t the only important thing about them, too.
However. This book was too much. Anderson did a great job with the catalyst metaphor (chemical reactions, hypotheses, experiments, and so forth), but there were at least five other major metaphors in the mix, and it was confusing. There were also too many major relationships. Kate’s nascent, difficult friendship with Teri was sensitively handled, despite the (in my view) unnecessarily explosive event at the center of the novel, but what about her dad? He’s just left hanging. What about her boyfriend, who we’re steered to like, then hate, then like, then pity, then like, then dislike? (Frankly, I just liked him, but then, I’m in the humanities, too.) Catalyst needed to be cut, all the extraneous matter taken out so that we could see Kate’s worries about MIT slowly transform into worries about something bigger and outside of herself.
When all was said and done, this book stayed with me. It had power. But it would have been better if there had been less of it, in the right places.