Catalyst

‘I have no future. I’m going to live at home, care for my aging father, and sell condoms at the pharmacy.’ When, some sixty pages before the end of Anderson’s novel, 18-year-old Kate Malone has reached this conclusion, it represents a sad development for a young woman who seemed to be on the brink of academic and sporting success. For years, intending to follow the career path of her late mother, she has hoped to gain a place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study chemistry, a subject at which she shines in high school. Simultaneously, she has managed to establish a bearable modus vivendi with her ‘aging father’, who is the local smalltown preacher, and with Toby, her young teenage asthmatic brother. Additionally, she has a boyfriend, Mitch, whose company she clearly enjoys. Circumstances are, however, going to change dramatically for Kate when, following a fire at their home, a neighbouring dysfunctional family called the Litches move in with the Malones. Specifically, it is the Litch children – teenage Teri and her child brother Mikey – whose destinies have such an effect on Kate’s progress as she comes to accept her rejection by MIT and, eventually, the break-up of her relationship with Mitch. Anderson’s narrative, relayed via Kate’s first-person voice, avails of every opportunity to explore the various literal and metaphorical applications of the term ‘catalyst’ and, more generally, to keep reminding readers of the chemistry background against which events are played out. Rather like Kate’s class we are asked, at one point, to study ‘the rate of reaction influenced by the presence of catalysts and inhibitors and a bunch of other stuff’. If at times these analogies seem a little forced, they more often constitute a welcome extra dimension to a young adult novel which has its moments of power and poignancy.