Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bookclub Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes ★★★★

Flowers for AlgernonI have three confessions to make:
1) I never read this book in school.
2) For some reason, this book is associated with the A-bomb in my mind. No idea why.
3) There was beer at my bookclub meeting, and I drank a goodish amount of it, so this review may ramble.

Needless to say, Flowers for Algernon was very, very different than I had always thought. I honestly cannot tell you why I thought that... just that I did. It's just one of those weird association things that people have. Or maybe it's just me. Unsure which.

So, after I read the book description and realized that I was way, way, off, I was actually really looking forward to reading it. I love overcoming adversity type books, I love books that make me feel something, and I love books that make me think. This is definitely one of those, but still I feel like there was something off about it. I liked it, a lot, but I wanted more perspective, I guess.

Quick run-down: Mentally handicapped Charlie is undergoes an experimental operation to increase his capacity for learning and intelligence. The book examines his journey, and what it means, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and morally. Very interesting stuff.

I liked Charlie, more so the less intelligent he was. It was easier for me to sympathize and identify with him then, rather than at the height of his intelligence, when everything and everyone seemed beneath him. I can identify with aspirations and dreams, but I find it hard to understand intelligence so massive that it's alienating. I did like that the more that Charlie learned, the more was able to understand about the world around him, but it was often heartbreaking to see his revelations. Heartbreaking to me, anyway. One of the things that I felt was off about the book was that Charlie seemed distant from his own experiences and memories. He often saw his "handicapped" self in memories as a different person, and his discoveries of memory and experience were like watching something happening to someone else, rather than to himself.

I also wanted more of the history, and more perspective on the story. We see everything through Charlie's eyes, and while this works for most of the story, because we're in his head and we can almost experience his changes directly, some parts just lacked perspective, to me. Particularly the parts dealing with Charlie's incubator mother.There were a lot of parts where Charlie remembered her behavior and her actions and reactions and attitudes, but he couldn't identify with them, or understand them at all. And the reader, seeing through Charlie's eyes, sees the cruelty and the intolerance and impatience, but there isn't anything to give perspective to these memories. We don't see how hard it would be to deal with a young mentally handicapped boy, while caring for a newborn, and constantly worrying that one lapse in vigilance could result in disaster. We don't see how hard day to day life would be with a mentally handicapped 17 year old... we see only the extremes.

Am I condoning her horrific behavior? Absolutely not. Never. But I can put myself in her shoes and imagine just how hard it would be. And knowing myself, and how patience is NOT one of my best qualities, I can understand her frustration and fear and anger. I hope that I would never, ever, ever act on them like she did, that I would have the insight and compassion to accept the hand I'm dealt, should I be put in that position, but I can sympathize... to a point. Past that point and I don't think there's a punishment severe enough to make up for the way she treated her son. Not in a hundred lifetimes. Charlie had every chance to be happy, despite his handicap, and she ruined him.

Forgiveness isn't one of my virtues, either.

I did like the themes in the book, of second chances, at taking a risk, at wanting to better oneself and understand who we are and who we are in the world and what it means to be who we are. I liked the theme of one person being able to make such a difference, such an impact on the world, and it gives me hope that there is a point to it all. I liked the theme of learning to accept the life we have, and that sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and it definitely was a hit with the bookclub. Very glad that I read this one. :)

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