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On the same day that child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school, his girlfriend Katherine broke up with him. This next morning, Colin sits in his bathtub and thinks about the Greek philosopher Archimedes, who had a brilliant physics insight while sitting in a tub. Excited, Archimedes supposedly shouted, “Eureka!” meaning, “I have found it!” Colin wishes that, he, too, could have a brilliant insight of some kind. When he comes out of the bathroom, both his parents are sitting on his bed. They tell him Katherine called. She is worried about Colin, and so are they. Colin listens to their expressions of concern for as long as he can before he has to run back into the bathroom to vomit. For the next fourteen hours, he looks through his yearbook. Many of his classmates’ notes to him end with “Stay cool!” which Colin finds absurd, since he is not cool. He spends most of the fourteen hours rereading the inscription from Katherine, with her pledge to be his forever. He makes an anagram of her words, rearranging the letters into a different phrase.
Colin’s friend Hassan Harbish pays a visit. Hassan is hairy and overweight, of Lebanese descent, and a fairly lax Muslim. He enjoys teasing Colin, who is half-Jewish, with Arabic insults like kafir (“infidel”). Hassan is a year older than Colin but is taking a break before starting college. Hassan mocks Colin and brags jokingly about his own, allegedly massive penis, but he listens somewhat sympathetically as Colin pours out his frustrations. All he ever wanted, Colin says, is that Katherine would love him and that he would do something meaningful with his life. Hassan tells Colin, half-seriously, that he needs God. Colin rejects this suggestion. He goes on to say that although he is a prodigy, with a gift for learning things quickly and at a young age, he will never be a genius, one who discovers new things. He wants to matter. Hassan’s retort is that what Colin really wants is to be famous. Hassan announces that Colin has a complicated problem with a simple solution.
Hassan’s proposed solution to Colin’s misery is a road trip. Colin’s parents oppose the plan but relent, perhaps out of guilt, when Colin talks about his wasted potential. Hassan’s parents give their permission after Colin tells them he plans to find Hassan a job. Colin and Hassan leave Chicago’s North Side, where they live, and drive south in Colin’s car, nicknamed Satan’s Hearse. Colin is at the wheel as they pass through Indianapolis after midnight. He thinks of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was neither a prodigy nor a genius but mattered very much, because his assassination triggered World War I. Colin is trying not to think about Katherine. All nineteen of his girlfriends have been named Katherine, and every single one broke up with him.
Colin’s parents first realized he was unusual when he started reading newspaper headlines as a two-year-old. A child psychologist told Colin’s mother that Colin was brilliant, but his parents should not have unreasonable expectations for his future achievements. Colin’s father gave Colin a book to read, Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece. Colin read the book quickly and enjoyed it, but he did not understand that he himself was missing a piece, namely the ability to see himself as other saw him. When Colin started attending Kalman, an expensive private school where his mother taught French, he was teased and bullied. In third grade, however, he won the heart of a very pretty girl.
The opening chapters of the novel introduce the main characters, Colin and Hassan, and establish the humorous and irreverent tone of the novel. The story is told in the third person, with an omniscient narrator sharing insight into Colin’s thoughts and feelings. The non-linear and sometimes academic narrative style includes frequent flashbacks, numbered lists, footnotes with facts and explanations, and an appendix. Altogether, these features serve to provide additional insight into how Colin’s brain works. In particular, the flashbacks and footnotes demonstrate how Colin’s brain jumps from one thing to the next, constantly making connections that lead him on intellectual and emotional tangents. While this narrative style makes the story a little more complicated to follow in the early chapters, it’s an important device that provides structure to the story and insight into the main character.
This section introduces issues of identity and the burden of unrealized potential with the revelation that Colin is a child prodigy. Through a flashback in Chapter 3, the narrator reveals that Colin was identified as a prodigy when he was just two years old and that this label has determined his parents’ expectations for him as well as Colin’s own identity and expectations for himself. But as the novel begins, Colin finds himself at a turning point. Having just graduated from high school, Colin is no longer a child, which means he can no longer be a child prodigy. This leaves him unsure of what or who he is and somewhat desperate to experience the “Eureka moment” that will elevate him from prodigy to genius. The road trip that Colin and Hassan are about to embark on could provide Colin with that “Eureka moment.” It could also give him some distance from his parents’ expectations and allow him to learn that he is more than just a list of academic achievements, and that he doesn’t need to be a genius to matter in the world.
The opening chapters also establish the importance of romantic love in the novel. Early on, the reader learns the meaning behind the novel’s title, as Colin has indeed dated an abundance of girls named Katherine and is currently mourning his recent and completely unexpected breakup with Katherine XIX. The fact that Colin has dated nineteen girls with the same name, and that he has labeled them with numbers, suggests a level of objectification and makes the reader wonder if Colin has any real understanding of what it means to love, or even to truly know someone else. The fact that Colin has had nineteen girlfriends seems to support this idea, since there is little chance that he has gotten to know and love nineteen individual girls in his seventeen years.
Chapter 2 introduces the theme of friendship with the character of Hassan, Colin’s only friend. The relationship between Colin and Hassan is relaxed and easy, and Hassan uses humor to try and snap Colin out of his depression over his breakup with Katherine XIX. The two appear to be very close friends despite being opposites in just about every way. Colin does not believe in God, and Hassan is a faithful Muslim. Colin has had nineteen girlfriends, while Hassan has never dated. Colin is hyper-focused on academic achievement, while Hassan has taken a year off after graduation and isn’t sure he even wants to go to college.
In Chapter 3, Colin and Hassan embark on a journey that plays a key role in this bildungsroman. The road trip that the young men set out on, without a set plan or destination, is both a literal journey to parts unknown and a coming-of-age journey that sets into motion a series of events that allow the characters to grow and mature, providing a literary transition from childhood into adulthood. Colin’s memory of reading The Missing Piece as a child and completely misunderstanding the metaphor of the missing piece seems relevant here. After his breakup with Katherine, Colin also felt like he was missing a piece. Colin hints that he believes that the piece that is missing is Katherine, or perhaps his outgrown identity as a child prodigy, or maybe the Eureka achievement that would prove he is a full-fledged genius. For now, the missing piece remains unclear.