Reminiscent of Perks of Being a Wallflower, Sarah Henstra’s novel We Contain Multitudes uses inspiration from Walt Whitman’s poetry to weave a story of two boys forming a relationship through letters written to one another.
Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky are completely different people. Jo is an openly gay, poetry-loving sophomore while Kurl is a second-year senior football player. When the two boys get paired as pen pal partners in English class, they start to see that things aren’t as black and white as they seem. Their friendship begins to grow with each letter and eventually turns to love. But with homophobia, bullying, family secrets, and insecurities, Jonathan and Kurl try to hold on to their relationship amidst the conflicts threatening to tear them apart.
Simply put, this novel is beautifully written. Told in letters, We Contain Multitudes really digs deep into the emotions of the characters and it’s what makes this story work so well. The epistolary aspect brought the narration of the novel to such a deeper and personal level and helped show the emotions of the characters more fully. The use of letters allows the characters to convey emotions and thoughts that they would never dare to say aloud. It also helps the reader to gradually get to know these characters bit by bit as they reveal more personal topics to one another. As Jo and Kurl’s letters and relationship progress, so does the reader’s understanding of the events and circumstances that bring these two together. The character development crescendos as both Kurl and Jo find themselves through their letters, as well as learn about the other person.
Interlaced with themes of drug use, abuse, bullying, and PTSD, We Contain Multitudes shows how one can find solace in a person whom they never wouldn’t otherwise spoken to if fate hadn’t stepped in. Henstra also utilizes Walt Whitman’s poetry (see the title of the book) to help further convey the emotions of the characters as well as emphasize the themes of the novel. It is a unique way to incorporate poetry into a more mainstream medium of literature and show that there is real meaning beneath the flowery language and how poetry can resonate with so many different people on so many different levels.
Their love story is beautifully imperfect and really shows how love is not always bright colors and happiness. There is heartbreak. There is tragedy. There are regrets. But slowly, these pieces come together with passion and understanding to create a beautiful love story. Overall, We Contain Multitudes is a stunning novel that really shows that beauty in the pain and a more realistic view on young love.
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