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Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

2011/08/22

As we were reviewing the NPR readers’ choice list of science fiction and fantasy, this was one which was highly recommended by multiple co-workers. I had passed it over many times before when browsing through the stacks at my local library, or when shelving returned items, so I figured it was high time that I picked it up.

The narrator, Charlie Gordon, is a young man with an I.Q. around 70. Although somewhat mentally handicapped, he is physically function, and is employed at a bakery by a friend of his father’s. One day, he is selected from a number of other students at the school to be a candidate for a special surgery. As part of this process, Charlie undergoes many tests and is instructed to write progress reports, which are collected in this book. Once the surgery takes place, Charlie begins to note changes in how he feels, sees things, understands things. He also records memories, flashbacks of his childhood, his relationship with his parents, his sister, his school mates. Although Charlie’s intellect grows, his interpersonal skills lag, which results in many confusing incidents and interactions, especially with people who knew Charlie before the surgery, and can track his phenomenal changes.

This really is an engaging and fast-paced read. I devoured it in one afternoon, not wanting to put it down until I had gotten to the end. Charlie’s confusion and distress at not knowing how to act or behave in social situations or with people who he thought were his friends will resonate with anyone who has been on the outside of a social circle. His growth and developing awareness of himself as a person throughout the story raise questions of how mentally handicapped people are treated, and made me think about how I interact with such people. I can definitely see this novel appealing to teen readers, especially reluctant readers. I’d recommend it to fans of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” and similar books.

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