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We Contain Multitudes

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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.

377 pages, Hardcover

First published May 14, 2019

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About the author

Sarah Henstra

5 books198 followers
My novel The Red Word is available March 2018 from Grove Atlantic (US) and ECW (Canada), and in 2019 from Tramp Press (UK). Mad Miss Mimic was published by Penguin Canada in 2015. We Contain Multitudes is coming in 2019 from Penguin (Canada) and Little, Brown (US). I'm also an English professor and I teach courses in Fairy Tales & Fantasy and Gothic Horror.

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5 stars
2,556 (31%)
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3 stars
1,641 (20%)
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515 (6%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,585 reviews
Profile Image for Fish.
21 reviews2,306 followers
July 15, 2022
If I could rate this book lower, I would. Finishing this book physically pained me, it made me cry (not in the good way) about three times.

This is so far off from being an accurate relationship of a gay couple. They are SO over sexualized in the WEIRDEST way possible. The age gap made my skin crawl and I made an account just because the fact that this book has an almost 4/5 stars should be illegal. I finished this book purely out of spite and if I could make sure no young gay kid would ever read this again, I would.

Thing that made me want to take a Mellon baller to my frontal lobe in no particular order is the fact that:
- they have sex multiple times in public
- the relationship is so over sexualized
- the armpit scene exists (no I don’t want to talk about it)
- Kurt was basically raped by Jo’s sister but no one wants to talk about that
- ? Them being together after the summer is so unrealistic because Jo is 3 years younger than KURT?? What are they possibly going to do after the summer program
-the abuse of Kurt that is SO poorly handled
- the compulsory heterosexuality forced into the plot
- they both treat each other terribly, everyone in this book does.
- I wasted 15 dollars and two days on this book
- Shayna was turned into a complete asshole
- the writing style of Jo
- the story telling method made no sense.

The only good character was Bron, and I’ll stand by it.

this whole book is stereotype after stereotype.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for may ➹.
480 reviews1,944 followers
June 26, 2019
My face when I finished this book truly looked like this:

1 and a half stars, baby!! What an honor it is to this book that it’s the first book I’ve rated under 3 stars this year!!!

First of all, I want to say that this book is just written really beautifully. (This is pretty much the only pro.) I could pull so many quotes from it, and I think a lot of people could read them and think they were beautiful as well. There were some moments while I was reading where I just thought, Wow. Okay, at some sentences, because the writing was just that pretty.

The whole time the band played I kept sneaking looks at you, Jo, and thinking: How could I be unhappy? I mean how could anybody be unhappy? And also: How is anybody supposed to hide happiness like this?

Of course, a 15-year-old boy would not be writing that sophisticatedly. I promise you, as a teenager and writer myself, I don’t even write like that. It’s really not realistic (and very pretentious) that a 15-year-old sophomore, no matter how quirky he is for being a huge fan of Walt Whitman, would write the way he did in the book.

Overall, this book is boring. I made it halfway before wanting to DNF it because I just didn’t care what happened at that point, and I know many other people also DNFed it for the same reason. But I made myself continue so I could properly review it (because I read reviews about how it got worse and wow I really should have read the reviews before I picked up the book).

The letter format doesn’t help either—it made it almost impossible for me to immerse myself and feel like I was there with the characters, because it just felt very, very passive. (Not to mention how many times the characters actually are interacting in real life and then just write letters to each other recounting the exact event that they both were there for. Yeah, it’s so the reader knows what’s going on. No, it’s not realistic.)

But it gets worse! Because the romance/relationship is absolutely WILD. First of all, it’s between a 15-year-old boy and an 18 year-old boy (sophomore and senior repeating the year), and it just made me really uncomfortable. Like, homeboy out here not even able to properly drive yet and he’s having sex with someone who would have been a freshman in college!!!

And the way the whole relationship starts is so messed up and weird? They don’t seem to have any feelings for each other until

A word kept flashing in my head. One word, over and over, like a flashing neon sign. Lucky. I don’t know how to describe it, Jo. Lucky lucky lucky. My whole body wanted to crawl inside your whole body, just to share all this luckiness with you.

Honestly, I just feel very yikes about the fact that a white, most likely straight, most likely cis woman wrote this book. Homophobia was written about a lot, which wasn’t the biggest issue for me because it wasn’t just about queer pain, and the characters weren’t only tragic gay boys. (Though the homophobic violence is pretty, well, violent.) My biggest issue was that she wrote about a gay boy’s pain by

And lastly, the most disappointing thing about this book: It was NOTHING like Ari and Dante, besides the fact that it was about two gay boys, and this just made me want to reread Ari and Dante even more.

I think the sad thing is that this book had the potential to be really good? It explored trauma (I’d actually be really interested to see an abuse survivor’s thoughts on it), and also figuring out your identity, and slowly coming to believe yourself to be more deserving of things than you originally thought. I also feel like the romance could have really been well-written, if you basically just changed the ages and took out all the things I talked about above. But the book failed, and I’m really sad (and mad) about it.

Anyways, 1.5 stars. I had no idea how to feel about it after I finished it (see the very accurate representational image of my face above), but the beautiful writing definitely made me feel like I enjoyed it a lot more than I actually did. It honestly could be 1 star, but the writing was just really gorgeous and I’m giving it a half star for that. I really don’t recommend this book, and I definitely don’t recommend it if you’re looking for something similar to Ari and Dante.

:: rep :: gay MC, gay abuse survivor MC

:: content warnings :: physical abuse (parent-child), bullying, homophobia (use of f-slur and q-slur), violence, drug use, cheating, questionable consent during sex
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,484 reviews29.4k followers
June 21, 2019
This book, to borrow a phrase from one of the main characters, utterly undid me. We Contain Multitudes was exactly what I hoped it would be: a gorgeously moving, beautifully told, thought-provoking story of friendship, love, truth, and secrets. I read most of this on a plane ride and it was the first of two books I read that had me in tears, which is always a condition I try to avoid on airplanes!!

Adam "Kurl" Kurlansky is a football player repeating his senior year of high school, a quiet giant with a bit of a penchant for fighting. As part of an assignment for English class, he is paired with Jonathan Hopkirk, a quirky, fiercely intelligent sophomore with a passion for Walt Whitman's poetry, who is bullied nearly every day at school because of his sexuality and his desire to dress as if he were living in Whitman's day.

Kurl and Jonathan are expected to write each other letters once a week. The two couldn't have less in common at the outset—Jonathan knows nothing about football and has formulated lots of assumptions about Kurl based on gossip from his sister and her best friend, while Kurl isn't really interested in answering Jonathan's questions, and he really doesn't understand why Jonathan would be so willing to make himself a target for bullies, why he continues to dress the way he does.

Little by little, the boys' relationship begins to deepen. Both learn that there is so much more to the other than meets the eye, but each realizes that there are secrets they are keeping, secrets that could prove just how vulnerable they are. Each experiences true epiphanies about themselves and each other, but they experience a tremendous amount of pain and anguish in the process.

The entire book is narrated in letters from the two boys, although in some letters they recount events in full. Sarah Henstra does such a great job creating two distinctively different writing styles for the two, and I found myself becoming as eager to read each new letter as they were waiting for the letters to arrive.

We Contain Multitudes is immensely poignant, even tremendously sad at times. Both Jonathan and Kurl have so many issues to confront, some within themselves, some within their families, and some at school. The book does get a little violent at times (although not gratuitously so), so it may be difficult for some to read. But there are so many moments of sheer beauty in this story as well, I couldn't put the book down even as the story became sadder.

Some of the plot may not be surprising, but there definitely were surprises to be had. Henstra is so talented, and she has created two characters that I hope we'll see again, because I want to know where they wind up and how life treated them. We Contain Multitudes is one of those absolutely beautiful books I won't soon forget.

See all of my reviews at itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com.

Check out my list of the best books I read in 2018 at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-best-books-i-read-in-2018.html.

You can follow me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/the.bookishworld.of.yrralh/.
Profile Image for Ayman.
202 reviews76.2k followers
July 29, 2021
fuck no. horrible, wrong, & disturbing. i won’t elaborate, don’t fucking read this shit

edit: ok i will elaborate. this hurt the LGBTQ+ community in many ways (just look at fish’s 1 star review and you will understand)
Profile Image for Benjamin .
264 reviews285 followers
Want to read
December 13, 2018
2019 is rocking with all these new gay releases!
Profile Image for Nataliya.
744 reviews11.8k followers
December 16, 2021
Something about this epistolary novel just hit the right spot for me. I suppose it’s that earnestly raw and intense first love, in letters, that just left me captivated.
“There’s an entire universe that we’ve created from scratch, just you and me. And I mean I would like to live here full-time. But the outside world doesn’t match up to the inside one, so I keep feeling like you and I are a dream.”

The letters between Adam and Jonathan start a bit awkwardly, a part of a school assignment with the unlikely (at least outside of literature) pairing of a very nerdy boy and a loner jock repeating his senior year of high school, and progress to a sweet and endearing story of first love, until family issues and life issues - abuse, bullying, neglect - combined with a few poor choices kick in and bring a bit of a pause in the relationship.

���I mean weird kids do have this aura to them. It’s like a smell almost. They’re stuck somewhere in their heads, in some kind of a bubble. People can’t really help themselves: They see a bubble, they want to pop it.”

Is it realistic? I highly doubt so, because although it’s lovely to read about quite sophisticated musings on life, universe and Walt Whitman, I can’t imagine actual teenage boys communicating this way. And yet I found it wonderful seeing Adam open up and accept the non-macho side of the world and embrace the side of himself his upbringing made him hide away. And the slow buildup of mutual admiration that eventually transforms into at first tentative and later obvious attraction was sweet, but never maudlin. And the messy imperfectness of it all, save for Walt Whitman and bluegrass.
“Maybe it is always like this. We are granted these tiny windows of time, these small pockets of space, where nothing else intrudes. Maybe that’s all we can ever hope to get, together. And maybe, just maybe, it will be enough.”

The letter writing is lovely, but of course inevitably becomes somewhat forced and artificial as the need for it disappears but the boys continue to write them nevertheless. That’s where the authenticity fails a bit, even if these letters remain enjoyable. But because I liked seeing the story develop through letters, I made the conscious decision to overlook the senselessness and just go with the flow — and it actually worked.

“And then I’ll read one of your letters and think, People have no idea what I’m like. I mean the gap between what people see and what’s actually in my head sort of shocks me when I read your letters. I guess everyone has this gap. It’s just that they don’t come face-to-face with it very often.”

There’s quite a bit of raw angsty earnestness here, hiding behind the facade of sophistication beyond their years. There’s heartbreak, and tough decisions, and a happy-for-now ending that I’m pretty sure just postponed the inevitable as their lives diverge between Adam navigating college and Jonathan still having a couple of years of high school ahead of him. (Also, if they do end up together, there will be some truly awkward family Christmases given that one specific event). But regardless of where their paths take them, this first love will always be something to remember.

And the rest of this book, focused on pain and trauma, violence - domestic abuse and bullying, lies and secrets that hurt, all the raw edges and exposed feelings.
“The US Postal Service is abuzz with the missives of sad, solitary, estranged teenagers.”

4 (somewhat sentimental) stars.
Profile Image for h o l l i s .
2,403 reviews1,851 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
May 30, 2019
DNF at 90 pages

The problem with a 100% epistolary novel is when your protagonists exist in the same space, in this case a high school, and you want them to have dialogue and face-to-face interactions. So you decide to have the penpals literally recounting situations the other was present for. "When you brought in the groceries, you said this, she said that, this happened next.." it makes no actual fucking sense to write a letter to someone this way. The person was there. I don't want someone giving me a play by play on my life. That's obnoxious. And the author clearly knew this because she covered her ass by saying "I know this is weird but I like breaking the conversation and events down to explore it", uh, no. These are sixteen/seventeen year old boys tasked with an English assignment and, to begin with, they are writing more than they should. You've already stretched the boundaries of my disbelief. I can't buy into this other 'instant replay' nonsense.

So instead I spoiled myself on the events of the book by reading some reviews, got mad some more, and thus here I am giving up.

If it wasn't against my personal policy to not rate books I've read less than half of.. this would have a one star up there.

Nope nope.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **
Profile Image for Tucker  (TuckerTheReader).
908 reviews1,596 followers
May 24, 2020

Many thanks to Little Brown Books for Young Readers for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

I went into this expecting romance... And it didn't come. Sure, there were two boys who were talking back and forth but there was absolutely no chemistry and I really didn't connect with either main character. I actually disliked them both.

Sure, I did DNF this so maybe it DID get better (I seriously doubt it but still...) But what I read was not enjoyable.

I also had a hard time with the fact a straight woman was writing a gay romance. Listen, I'm open for authors attempting to represent voices outside of their own but when they do that, they NEED to check for accuracy. And it felt like the author just didn't.

The main characters felt like cardboard stereotypes. There wasn't any creativity.

Overall, what I read was boring and unromantic. That said, I've heard it gets better so feel free to try this book for yourself.


DNF @ I lost track percent... I tried... I tried


See me talk about this book in my latest booktube video


can i get a YASS! for gay romance

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May 21, 2020

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DNF @ p.29

This is too blech for me. The characters read as being much older than they actually are, and it has that aggressively snarky and twee "vibe" that made me dislike RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE so much.

I think this will appeal to fans of Casey McQuiston and other YA and NA-age books in that vein, but something about those M/M books feels kind of inauthentic to me, and lately I find myself reaching for the #ownvoices ones more and more. I'm definitely not the target audience for this book, and maybe the Tumblr, "I'm so much smarter than you" vibe will appeal to the kiddos, but I found it boring, exhausting, and just not very engaging.

It's a shame, because I do love the epistolary format.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

1.5 stars
Profile Image for Lauren Lanz.
686 reviews247 followers
June 4, 2019
We’ve all come across a book so wonderful, you’re utterly transfixed and absorbed in every possible way. Those few moments you look up from the pages are done so with dreary eyes; reality seems secondary to what you’ve just experienced.

We Contain Multitudes is beautiful in its simplicity. We are shown a love story between two boys, their journey of heart and healing through letters.

When Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam Kurlansky are paired up for a class writing assignment, they didn’t know what to expect. Jonathan enjoys poetry, and doesn’t have any friends in school. Adam is a football star, though he prefers to avoid socializing with other students. Through weekly letters to each other, the boys begin finding friendship amidst their differences. Eventually, things blossom into love, and the two are determined to find peace in a life that wants nothing but chaos for them.

Told through solely Adam and Jonathan’s letters to each other, We Contain Multitudes was a truly intriguing book. I was immediately drawn to both main characters, as they each had such a distinct, unique voice. The story flowed perfectly, nothing felt too fast paced or slowed down. It got to the point where I’d forgotten I was reading words on a page, and was instead completely lost in the story.

This book left me with a distinct sense of peace. A good sort of quietness has settled inside me after closing the last page. The simple beauty was astounding.
Profile Image for Meags.
2,111 reviews371 followers
June 8, 2020
5 stars

I’m a seeker of epistolary romance stories and a lover of LGBT fiction, so the idea behind this story, with the main characters, Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam “Kurl” Kurlanksy, falling in love while writing letters to one another for a class assignment, was right up my alley.

I found the writing and the characters instantly compelling, with a prose so beautiful and affecting, I couldn’t decide if the language and ideas these boys wielded with their words was awe-inspiring or pretentious AF. Either way, I was here for it.

What I struggled with as the story progressed, and Jo and Kurl fell deeper into each other’s orbits, was whether the way the construct of their letters actually made any realistic sense, considering that, to keep the reader in the know, the characters were reciting events and passages of dialogue to each other, even though they had been witness to these moments in RL. I doubt anyone writing a letter has ever done such a thing, but I was happy to grant a little bit of suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the distinctively problematic writing choice for all the affecting moments that it had on me.

I absolutely adored the story for the first 250 pages or so, but like the flick of a switch, the tone and direction changed course—at least in terms of how I wanted the story to play out, perhaps naively on my part—and I was jolted out of my starry-eyed, fangirl zone, and, instead, harshly knocked to the ground, as the characters (and I) took one emotional hit after another, from which they (we) never really recovered.

WARNING: Spoilers from this point forward...

This is where I need to press upon the content warnings for this story. We have physical abuse, bullying (of hate crime levels), dubious sexual consent, substance abuse, and cheating, to name but a few of the more prevalent themes that ran deeply throughout this story. I personally knew nothing of this when I began reading, but I know my emotional reaction may have been more controlled and, at the very least, prepared had I done some research ahead of time.

Events that unfolded in the final quarter of the story went a little too far for me, crossing boundaries that I often try to avoid in my romance reads. Personally, there aren’t enough ‘I’m sorrys’ in the world to mend the level of betrayal experienced here . Obviously, we all react to these things differently, in real life and in fiction, and some readers will find the actions understandable, and perhaps even acceptable, but what occurred was unforgivable, in my opinion, . Regardless of the vast emotional traumas and hurt feelings these characters were experiencing that led to their self-destructive behaviour, it was still just a little too f*cked up for me. Therefore, the ending, with its hopeful potential for healing and absolution, felt a little incongruous with the irreparable damage wrought a mere month earlier.

So, having been so utterly destroyed by the events that transpired, why, may you ask, did I give this book a five star rating?... Well, after bouncing back and forth for days between 5 stars or no rating at all, I decided that the fact this book impacted me so acutely—in ways that at first made me sigh and swoon, only to unexpectedly pissed me off and hurt my heart irrevocably—I just couldn’t go past the fact that it made me feel, so damn deeply, which I had to acknowledge, even if it rankled my sensitivities.

When it comes down to it, this is the first (perhaps only) book of 2020 that has affected me in such profound ways. I have no doubt that Jo and Kurl’s love story—because that’s still very much what this was, despite everything—will linger on the edges of my mind for a really long time to come.
Profile Image for paige.
592 reviews673 followers
October 30, 2022
"I keep feeling like you and I are a dream. No, it's the opposite. I feel like I walk around all day in a dream, and then, when I see you, I wake up."


Sometimes you start a book knowing it's going to be amazing, and then the entire read, you wonder what kind of amazing it's going to be. You wonder what part of your life it's going to change, what part of you will be forever altered. Writing does that, I'm sure of it. How else would we make our greatest friends when those friends also love books?

I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but if you pick this piece of art up you'll understand.

In bold, you read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets I'll Give You the Sun and as soon as I saw my favorite boys in the world be named... I knew I had to pick this up. Especially since it was recommended to me by a friend who's opinion I trust fully in the first place.

There are a lot of hard topics. Probably the most often mentioned being parental abuse. And because we're reading from teenagers points of view, it's glossed over. Which can be a bit of a trigger for anyone who has survived that situation. I don't really know how to explain the rest because it wouldn't make sense out of context. But war is talked about a lot, PTSD, bullying, some heavy homophobia.

But as someone who (masochistically) loves to cry over books, it just felt like heavy topics being discussed by two boys who don't understand where their place is in this world. Where they belong, or maybe, where they can go. The self discovery alone in this book broke my heart (in the good way).

If you look at it that way, and I do, it's sort of beautiful.

I loved reading this through letters. I told a couple of friends as I was reading that it felt like Ari and Dante except through letters rather that right in front of you. Jonathan will probably hold a very special space in my heart for the rest of my life.

The imagery, the writing, the passion that you can hear in every word. This book was incredible, and five stars does not seem like enough to grasp it.


- Paige
Profile Image for Emma.
912 reviews869 followers
May 20, 2019
3.5 Stars

I had been anticipating this novel since it is Sarah Henstra’s first YA book and I must say that I was deeply happy with some things and not so happy with others.

Let’s start with what I enjoyed.
I liked the fact that it was all an epistolary novel, it’s a very original concept for a YA book and I think it was set up very well. I enjoyed seeing the two main characters giving both their points of view on the same matter and also trying to catch up with the letters they sent each other.

The prose was definitely beautiful. I must admit that I asked myself a question: was it a bit too much for two teenagers still in high school? Maybe, but in the end I was fine with it because I think that deep down I, as a reader, always want my main characters to be special in some way and not think about the fact that they are just normal teenagers picked out at random from a high school crowd. So yes, maybe it was a bit too much, but these characters are special and so it also felt fitting to have them write so majestically and quote Walt Whitman’s poems to each other.
I don’t even know if I succeeded in explaining myself or if I just started rambling here. If so, I’m sorry.
Jo and Kurl were definitely something. Both of them had their finest and lowest moments in this book. I appreciated the fact that the author did not shy away from heavy topics such as bullying, homophobia (internalized and general), domestic violence, abuse, grief and PTSD. But if any of these themes make you uncomfortable or are triggering then maybe this isn’t the read for you.

Now to what I didn’t enjoy. I had two main issues with this novel.
The first one is the part about consent. The lines were really blurry in that scene where Kurl was drunk. I was happy to see Jo seeking guidance and asking for help to his sister and Bron. It was a good choice that then unfortunately didn’t lead to him confronting Kurl. We just get told that he was drunk but he remembers what he did and from what we get he seems to be okay with it. For me this isn’t enough, I think the two of them should have had a more in depth conversation about that night.
The second thing I wasn’t okay with is the cheating and how the whole aspect was dealt with. Shayna and Kurl in the end don’t really give any explanation to Jo and he seems to be okay with this decision and he also forgives them. To me it felt like he was accepting something without even trying to solve or fight it. I didn’t like this. The ending makes us think that Kurl and Jo will not only remain friends, but also maybe get back together, or at least try to. Without any explanation and felt apologies for the night when the cheating happened I do not think this is an adequate ending.
Profile Image for charlotte,.
3,127 reviews819 followers
May 14, 2019
a moment of silence for all the great characters who got screwed over by shitty plots

for them as wants to know exactly:

Rep: gay mcs
Profile Image for Christine on hiatus, see “About me”.
589 reviews1,137 followers
April 5, 2021
4.5 stars rounded to 5 stars

I just finished reading and reviewing all of my Net Galley books, putting me in position for the first time in a long while to choose any book that calls to me from my ridiculous 2000-book TBR. And this one is the winner—and what a winner it is!

I have been jumping from genre-to-genre these days and thought it would be a great time for an “all the feels” book, and my, this one delivers in spades. This is an opposites-attract love story told purely in letters between an 18-year-old football player with poor grades and a 16-year-old Walt Whitman-loving, mandolin-playing, bullied gay boy. The letters are an English assignment that pair up partners randomly. The project is to last 3 months; “Kurl” and “Jo” write for 9 months.

Through these letters we see Kurl and Jo slowly come together over their struggles with significant individual issues. Eventually, overwhelming pain and anguish, self-doubt, and loss of trust ensue. This story had me firmly in its grasp. I was laughing, crying, and pulling desperately for these guys. What an utterly beautiful and absorbing book this is.

I do have to downrate it 1/2 star because of way the story was told. I love the content and the general prose of the letters, but not the technique in which they are written. Kurl and Jo saw each other nearly every day so they had common knowledge of those times. Yet to fill in the reader, they had to pretty much slide into 2nd person narrative in their letters, which I found unnatural. I decided to just go with it since the book is nearly perfect otherwise. This issue would have cost a lesser book a whole star. I also feel the ending is too quick. I would have liked a little more, perhaps in the form of an epilogue. Despite this, I still feel compelled to round up to 5 stars as this is clearly a book-of-the year candidate for me.

Overall, I found We Contain Multitudes to be a profound story, a very deeply complex tale. If you need to be touched, pick up a copy. You will be rewarded with a riveting experience in human relationships.

Thank you Libby App and Twin Cities Metro eLibrary for lending me a copy of this book.
Profile Image for Melanie A..
1,064 reviews395 followers
November 21, 2019
Audio: 5+ STARS!!!
Story: 4.5 STARS!

Wow! What an incredible journey.

We Contain Multitudes is the story of two boys who couldn't be more different; Kurl, the popular jock who's repeating his last year of high school, and Jonathan, the outcast sophomore who deals with bullies everyday.

I know what you're thinking . . . that this is a bit of a cliché. But, wow, Sarah Henstra easily skirted that pitfall by digging DEEP. The title is incredibly apt here as both Jonathan and Kurl are stripped back layer by layer and revealed through the letters they must write to each other for an English project . . . as in . . .

The entire book is written in the form of letters; this was both its genius and its weakness in my opinion.

The initial stages of Kurl and Jonathan's relationship were done in a way that was nothing short of brilliant. Since I imagine that not having to face a person would make opening up to them much easier, the way they both came out of their shells was wonderfully believable.

But once things became more involved, I didn't quite appreciate the letters as much. I wanted to be there during the pivotal moments, inside their heads where I'd be able to get a better handle on the why's and how's of it all. There were times that their thoughts came across as too wise for their ages, and times that their actions (or lack of them) felt out of character.

However, I would never want to discourage you from taking this journey with Kurl and Jonathan. And the audio performances were incredible! I highly recommend.

PS: The story became unexpectedly dark in places so I'll issue some trigger warnings:

PPS: Thanks Amber for writing your wonderful review and bringing this book to my attention. <3
Profile Image for Amber’s reading.
538 reviews98 followers
October 26, 2019
I LOVED this book! I ADORED this book! I will be gifting this book to some of my loved ones this Christmas because it meant so much to me. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and goes right onto my Top Favorites list.

This is a YA novel written about two high school boys that couldn’t be more different becoming friends through a class assignment where they have to write weekly letters to one another. Jonathon is a skinny, awkward, opening gay sophomore with no friends who dresses in ruffle shirts and suspenders (inspired by Walt Whitman). Adam (Kurl) is a muscular football jock that’s repeating his senior year and has a reputation for fighting.

The entire book is written in their letters to one another. I was a little apprehensive when I started the book, because I’ve never read a book written this way that I end up enjoying. The author rocked this method. I loved every bit of it.

I was an emotional wreck while reading this book and that’s the biggest indicator about whether I’m going to like a book or not. If I cry, it’s usually a winner. I cried tears of sadness, frustration, and joy. This book was so touching and the story of Jonathon and Adam was just beautiful and will stay with me for a long time.

Profile Image for yvee.
253 reviews22 followers
July 6, 2019
Ok. Maybe like a 1.5

I am so angry at this book. Legit so angry. I would have given this book a 4 Star, even a 5 Star rating if the last like 100 something pages hadn’t happened.

This book had so much potential to live up to I’ll give you the sun, or hell, even Ari and Dante. But let me tell you.... how dare they compare this story to Ari and Dante because it doesn’t even come CLOSE after THAT [spoiler ahead]

- ok so apparently shayna the beloved sister or whatever has nothing to say to HER BROTHER for sleeping with his boyfriend...
- and it just made jo seem almost like the bad guy for wanting some time to himself and to grieve for the loss of his relationship and that made me so ANGRY
- god and then shayna just became a selfish insufferable mess and I felt so fucking bad for Jo

Anyways, I loved this book until the end. I am utterly disappointed and disgusted. I wish that authors would not go for unnecessary plots for shock value ESPECIALLY the cheating trope. Ugh.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Bryce Rocks My Socks.
350 reviews543 followers
March 23, 2023
the first 25% of the book i was like omg they're so cute and
the next 25% was like omg this is so hot then
the next 25% was HEARTBREAK- pure, disastrous, put through a meat grinder, stomped on for good measure- HEARTBREAK
and then there was this 15% where i was like ASAKHJKFHJHS I'M RUNNING OUT OF PAGES THERE BETTER BE A HAPPY ENDING and then
well, ill let u figure out the last 10% (if i did my math correctly) for urself.

i knew it would be five stars at page 100. i fell in love with them as they fell in love with each other. i haven't flown through a book so fast. i love when you just HAVE to stay up to read a book- and yes i did this the night before my exam, i have no regrets.

why did i pick up ur book, u ask? (just kidding, no one was asking). well, let me tell you, dear curious reader, paige wrote to me in a penpal letter about this book about penpal letters. i recommend everyone get a penpal at one point in their life.

thank u to the person on my last review who manifested that my next book would be a five stars. ur a witch. teach me ur ways. im keeping u.

Profile Image for Maximiliano.
Author 1 book1,202 followers
March 4, 2021
Marge, creo que no superaré este libro nunca.
Se me ocurrió empezar a reseñar los libros que leyera este año por acá, así que empiezo con este que es el primero que leí y definitivamente, uno de los que encabeza la lista de mis favoritos del 2021.

We Contain Multitudes es una novela excelente. Empieza con una asignatura del colegio en la cual los protagonistas deben escribirse cartas entre sí y de esa forma Jonathan y Kurl, dos chicos tan distintos como rotos, cruzan caminos. Carta a carta, cada uno conoce más del otro. Se abren sus corazones y confiesan sus miedos, comparten pasiones y descubren nuevas. Forman una relación única, de las más hermosas que he leído. Aprenden a acompañarse el uno al otro y a quererse como lo necesitan.

Los personajes me encantaron. Son bien reales. Sus virtudes florecen a lo largo de las páginas y sus errores los humanizan tanto como a cualquiera. Al estar el libro entero contado mediante las cartas que sus protagonistas escriben, cada emoción se siente propia. Se te entibia el pecho con cada beso y te duele el estómago con cada golpe. La autora hizo un trabajo increíble al hilar cada voz y cada escenario. Volvió lo cotidiano algo mágico y lo casual algo extraordinario. No suelo llorar con los libros, pero cuando cerré esta novela no pude parar. Tuve que abrazarla así como necesité abrazar a los personajes y aflojar el nudo que se había formado en mi garganta dejando que cada lágrima salga.

Como dije ni bien lo terminé, no creo superar este libro nunca. Intuyo que es de esos que se quedan con vos por un tiempo largo. Una de esas historias que, una vez que entra a tu corazón, se acomoda en un rinconcito para no salir jamás. Léanlo.
Profile Image for Leslie.
48 reviews
October 12, 2018
Rarely has a book affected me as this one has. I wanted to race through it and while at the same time, slowly savor each sentence. It is a shimmering love story with a brittle core. I cried more than once and may have been reading this at my desk during the day... Unforgettable.
Profile Image for Mel (Epic Reading).
904 reviews275 followers
December 18, 2019
Unique ways of telling a story have always been popular; but it's hard to get them right. Whether it's in a prose, poetry, visual or audio format we crave the uniqueness of a story told in a new way. Sarah Henstra uses hand-written letters, in We Contain Multitudes, to tell the entirety of her story. These letters capture the thoughts, feelings and actions of two boys who grow to care for one another. A football player whose repeating grade 12 and seen as 'macho'; and a geeky picked-on gay boy. These high school boys set the scene via their letters to tell an endearing and decent contemporary teen story.

The beginning of We Contain Multitudes is sooo great. The letters are the perfect way for us to learn about each boy, see what they are obviously holding back, experience their true emotions written down; as opposed to the look or face they put on in public. Set-up to write to one another via an English class Henstra gives us a clever premise and executes it fairly well.
However the letter method starts to fall apart as the book progresses. The boys start explaining (blow for blow, word for word) situations where they were both present. Who would recap an event with dialogue? Who would tell someone what happened when they were already there? I realize this is required to tell the story to the reader; but for me it came off as really weak and started to consistently bug me the further into the story we got. If I may suggest, a better way to tackle this would have been for Henstra to start off with the letters (ie: Part I - Letters), then maybe move to a first person narrative where each boy gets their own chapter for Part II (plus add a few letters they write in so the boys can express to one another what they are afraid to say out loud). This would have felt more balanced and taken away the unbelievability I felt that the boys would capture and write down every word said at an event or to one another.

I checked and gayness is a word. It believe it conveys what I want for this purpose (thank you urban dictionary for helping this old-ish lady pretend to be current). Overall there is a gayness to We Contain Multitudes; and it's not that one of our primary characters is outwardly (and clearly comfortably) homosexual. This gayness permeates from the pages when the boys talk about poetry, music and other cultural aspects of their likes (and dislikes) to one another. While our football boy may not realize he's gay, or may not even be gay, he does start to realize that there is something to be said for being less macho and a little more gay (if you will). Maybe gay isn't the right word here but this 80's child is going with it.
I liked how Henstra handled the awkwardness of the first hands-on encounters between the boys. They were horribly unsure (both of them) and afterwards it created all kinds of drama. This is true of hetero and homo interactions at this age. Although it is clearly heightened for our boys given the uncertainty of whether our football bay is even gay.
This brings me to my question about the author...
What experience does Henstra have with the LGBTQ+ community? I couldn't really find much info about her online and I'd be curious to know if she knows some gay men or has some context for where the emotions of her two leading boys comes from. I'm certain I couldn't tell you how the average man feels, nevermind when it comes to complex subjects like sexuality. At one point it struck me that I would have like some validity or assurance in the Author's bio or in a forward (or even afterward) that Henstra had some credible sources to draw from. The reason I wanted this validation is that this comes off as a romance story where the two leads could be any gender or sexuality. There is something a bit too generic about the overall outcome and attitudes for me given the central importance to the story being between an opening gay boy and one who is not so sure. I need to find a review written by a boy/man who was unsure if he was gay as a teen and see if it resonates for them to know if I'm onto something or just out in left field.

For a contemporary YA book We Contain Multitudes has a pretty good ending; which is a big compliment from me as I tend to hate contemporary romance endings (YA or adult). This ends feels authentic, realistic and reasonable. A nice treat given how often a "John Green" ending (aka: someone dies and it's all bittersweet and now you'll be forced to bawl your eyes out even if you rarely cry) transpires with this genre. I like both the boys and felt there were equally interesting traits in each of them. Both boys feel like real people with real challenges that stem from their own individual feelings, experiences and current living situations. Additionally I didn't feel like I'd been tricked into crying or had my 'heart strings' pulled just for the sake of pulling them.
So, I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading We Contain Multitudes and I'd definitely recommend it over that Simon book everyone rants about (yes I know I'm just going to bring the legion of haters to the comments by saying this). The difference from Simon to this is that the realism is there, the emotions are there and not everyone is happy go lucky the whole time; because who smiles after being bullied, called names and beat on? No one. And Henstra makes that abundantly clear to the reader as each boy calls the other out for not supporting as expected in certain situations.
Finally, Henstra makes a general call to the reader and challenges them to stand-up for others around them. It's a central part of the story and the evolution of the boys. For me it's a great message that everyone could use a reminder of. Individuals can influence and affect the world directly around them; and if we choose not to then we choose to accept what is happening (intentionally or not).

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,534 reviews32.5k followers
June 8, 2019
this story is definitely a slow creeper - meaning that, whilst reading this, it didnt really feel as impactful. the emotional hit came randomly after i read the book, set it aside, and walked away. and then, out of nowhere, i thought, ‘holy crap. this book.’ this story is large, and it contains multitudes.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Sara.
358 reviews32 followers
January 9, 2022
I 1000% loved this book for the 1st 3/4ths. It's this really beautiful romantic epistolary novel about 2 teenage boys who fall in love and discuss Walt Whitman and salamanders and their own sordid lives. It's lovely. But then some hardcore drama happens 3/4ths in and it was really overwhelming in its intensity. I almost whipped the book across the room, tbh. I needed Imogen Heap to come in with some oooooh what you says to cut those dark feelings. Haha. But also for real.

So yeah, the motivations behind all the dramarama make sense and some of it wasn't surprising and like everyone is broken, but sometimes it's just too much to be reminded of our capacity to hurt each other, ya know? It grinds the soul. The tone shift tho, it just kind of ruined the book for me. And the neat ending didn't work either.

Ugh, I have no idea how to rate this. It's somewhere between a 2 and a 3 because of the drama, but everything before was a 5. I'd recommend if you love character driven realistic romances with a lot of hardcore intensity. But there are some hella problematic aspects too, just fyi.

P.s. I just read another of the reviews on here and someone compared it to Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King, which is indeed apt in my estimation as I think I literally whipped that book across my bedroom. I don't like books to betray me when I'm not ready.
Profile Image for Giulia.
694 reviews103 followers
Shelved as 'the-did-not-finish'
August 18, 2020
"Poetry’s like that, Kurl: slippery and coy. It means different things to different people."

TW: bullying, homophobia

Unpopular Opinion Time 🐸☕️

DNF @13%

Maybe I should add in the TW “pretentious writing” as well...

This is a love story between a 18 years old kid and a 15 years old guy and how their relationship grew and developed in the face of homophobia and bullying. But I’m not sure that was the case.

Don't get me wrong, the reason why this is a DNF is, in fact, not the homophobia or the bullying or even the age gap between the two main characters.

Nah, fam, the real issues for me here was the writing style.
And to be more precise, the 15 yo kid's writing style. It was painfully pretentious. I understand that you are an aspiring poet but, kid, take a goddam breath and write like a normal human being.

These two dudes have to send each other letters for an English assignment and from there on their relationship bloomed but damn, the younger kid and his letters were just unbearable. It was just a bit challenging to think that a kid would write and say stuff like that. And, indeed, I did not fully believe in his character and his personality.
It felt a bit too plastic and not enough real.

Who, with all the due respect, writes that way? Man, it was not enjoyable, and that’s why I decided to not finish We Contain Multitudes.

I know there are talented young kids that are definitely able to write in this poetic and lush writing style. And, honestly, kudos to you because I'm clearly not able, but I'm also very clearly not a fan of this pretentious, overly-literate character.
I like my protagonists to be a bit more relatable. And Jonathan was simply too smart for my stupid and illiterate self.

I'm sure there is somebody out there who can actually enjoy how wordy and cultured he was. But, unfortunately, that somebody was not me. I truly believe I was just too stupid.
It was not the book's fault, I assure you. It was all on me and how dumb I am.

Nonetheless, the pretentiousness was strong in this one and I was aggressively not a fan.
Hence, I decided to stop reading. We Contain Multitudes. It was simply not my cup of tea, but hopefully it's yours!
Profile Image for Rita Mariani.
251 reviews30 followers
May 18, 2019
can't believe how excited i was for this book... the disappointment is real with this one
Profile Image for stefansbooks.
279 reviews147 followers
August 2, 2021
Is the cover gorgeous? Yes.

Is the writing good? Yes.

Was the format of this book unique? Yes.

Did I enjoy the first 200-230 pages? Again, yes.

Would I recommend this book? ABSOLUTELY NOT.
The problematic aspects of this book definitely ruined it for me. Pretty covers & beautiful writing are not worth redeeming unaddressed r*pe & cheating scenes, romanticization of abusive & toxic relationships, unhealthy obessesions, drug addiction, violence, etc.

So, I decided to finish this book because I really dislike it when people have an opinion on things they haven’t tried, especially if it’s having an opinion on a book you haven’t read/finished reading.

Unfortunately, all the goodreads reviews were right. The r*pe scene isn’t addressed at all, the sister of the main character straight up blames her best friend for having the part which resulted in her r*ping her brother’s boyfriend, the abuse & drug addiction aren’t addressed at all, and yeah. We’re supposed to have received a “happy ending” this way.

Also, there’s a scene towards the end of the book where the 18 year old MC kisses the 15 year old MC. The 15 year old says “No” and the 18 year old keeps going on. Yup, even if you feel like “the other party is into you”, No means no. Especially if one of the 2 is underaged. 🙂 Keep going y’all, keep romanticizing this kind of crap. Especially when this kind of books are marketed as YA (13-17 y.o.)

Oh, and btw both of the MCs insist (and they mention this MULTIPLE times) that they are gay. So please, someone explain to me how Kurl got turned on by Jo’s sister? I’m sorry, but at least use the correct terminology? Bye.

Also, I’m 100% sure the author got inspired by the movie “Center of my World” (Original German title: Die Mitte der Welt). The only difference is that the MC has his sh*t together in that movie and understands when an environment is toxic af. In this book, however, the 2 MCs end up together without a second thought. When the 15 year old tried keeping his distance, everyone around him (including friends & family) “forced” him to give the 18 year old another chance. So yeah, please don’t read this.
1 review
August 2, 2019
This book sucks and I’ll deeply offended that it has 4/5 stars, which tricked me into wasting $25 on this hot garbage.

I wish straight women would stop thinking they can write books on what it’s like to be gay, while also making it a purely sexual ordeal and just really letting the reader know loud and clear that they believe gay relationships are so sexualized and not just... normal relationships.

Some things that I found particularly made me wanna rip my eyes out, in no particular order:
-All the pro military propaganda shoved in
-How the letters didn’t even seem like actual realistic letters replying to each other but random things shoved together, like not even in a stream of consciousness kind of way it was just so weird and irrelevant
-The age gap between the characters, i mean really, 15 and 18? I’m supposed to think that’s ok?
-The armpit sniffing scene (IT SOUNDS AS BAD AS IT WAS)
-“Holy gaybait!”
- Ah yes my pen pal let me describe to you the entire interaction we had today in this letter, because that’s completely normal

tl;dr I’m very tired, very irritated, and ultimately very disappointed. I literally made an account just to post this review.
Profile Image for Kaitlin Warwick.
15 reviews20 followers
May 24, 2019
I planned to give this book 4 stars solely for the fact that while I understood the explanation given for the boys writing down scenes that they experienced together in person, I was never quite able to believe it narratively and it felt forced. Otherwise I quite enjoyed the book. Until the same cliche of a self-proclaimed gay character getting upset and having straight sex with the person that would hurt their partner the most was completed. Especially considering it was rape except his “I knew what was happening and I didn’t stop it Why didn’t I stop it?” Mentality was apparently supposed to excuse that and make it not rape? That whole plot twist was very demeaning, disgusting, and I’m not surprised it was a straight woman who wrote it. LGBT plots deserve better than compulsory heterosexuality.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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