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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Charm & Strange

Charm & Strange by Kuehn, Stephanie (2014) Paperback - Stephanie Kuehn

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: this book absolutely deserves the Morris Award it won in 2014--the writing is lovely and dark, the characters are rich, and it's quite literary while still being tremendously engrossing--but the compact treatment, the spareness of this novel, made me want to read a Stephanie Kuehn creation that wields a bigger world and cast.


What happens: Andrew (Drew) Winston Winters (also known as Win) is a broken, violent boy. He's at boarding school in Vermont and seems to have no contact with his family. In alternating chapters (the present is always labeled "matter" and the past is labeled "anti-matter") we see the present-day Win of boarding school being befriended by a slightly outcast scholarship student named Jordan, while past (nine-year-old) Drew is growing up with his dysfunctional family, acting out with seemingly random violence and rage, which we know has something painful at its source. Win believes he comes from a line of werewolves, and that the wolf in him is poised to be released with the current full moon. He believes he may be responsible for the death, mutilation, and partial consumption of a hiker in the woods near his school during the last full moon. In painful chapters about the past, we see that the wolf is a metaphor that Drew the child created to make sense of the horrific abuse that was inflicted on him by a family member he was supposed to trust, while his depressed mother failed to protect him.


Drew/Win as a character. This deeply fleshed out character is a pleasure to read. He knows all of his flaws, he sees none of his strengths, other than the obvious ones on his CV (talented tennis player and runner, good student). He's anorexic, he's controlled, he's impulsive, he's brilliant, he's steadfastly aloof but clearly craves closeness, he's broken. He has tried desperately in his young life to latch on to the few people who showed support and love--his brother Keith, his cousins Phoebe and Anna, and possibly his roommate, Lex--but they were themselves burdened or flawed and couldn't nurture him enough for him to find the adult help he needed. He's approaching his breaking point when Jordan, with her lack of expectations and lack of a past with him, with her own outsider status, is the first person to really listen to him, and just in time. 


Keith and Siobhan. We slowly piece together that the loss of Drew's brother and sister had at its source the same trauma that caused Win's current broken state. He backed out of a suicide pact (with his brother's tacit approval, at the last second, when Keith let go of his hand), and that adds guilt on top of loss. But Drew was the strong one of these abused children. Siobhan was too young, without an advocate, and Keith was filled with hopelessness fueled by depression. Drew's response was rage--blind violence--and it may have saved him. 


The voice. Ms. Kuehn makes Win both male and vulnerable, thoughtful and out of control. Her writing pushes right up to the boundary of lyrical without spilling over into "unbelievable." The balance is perfect. For me, the beauty of the prose made Win worth fighting for, as a reader. Win's breaking point at a party in the woods comes about so beautifully and organically, we seem him unravel right before our eyes, even while we're still reading his first-person account


The title. Ah, the trouble with psychological, pretty, "quiet" novels: the marketing team doesn't try to force-feed a commercial title. And while I generally hate how authors' titles get manhandled right out of existence by the sales force, in this case the title (which I assume is Ms. Kuehn's original) may do the book a disservice. Plus, I thought the physics was not really fleshed out or used much, other than once or twice in a purely poetic way, and thus the title is not only forgettable but also a bit misleading and precious. And in a related thought: Win's explorations into biological explanations for his transformation into a wolf felt a bit like an add-on by a smart author who realized we might object to a bright, non-whimsical character who believes in werewolves.


In sum: a taut, brilliant piece of writing. The Morris is conferred on authors whose debuts are exceptional, and this one is a clear winner. But while the topic handled is huge, the treatment itself was spare and too-controlled, and I'm looking forward to reading more works by Ms. Kuehn that stretch her--I want to see her wield a larger cast, a larger world, and more settings.