Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Quality of Prose: 4.5/5
Quality of Story: 4.5/5
Quality of Characters: 4.5/5
Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5
How Long It Took Me to Finish: 3 days
A 1 Sentence Summary
Vera Dietz struggles to cope with the mysterious death of her best friend, Charlie Kahn, and the legacies their parents left for them.
My Favorite Quotes
“The pastor is saying something about how Charlie was a free spirit. He was and he wasn’t. He was free because on the inside he was tied up in knots. He lived hard because inside he was dying. Charlie made inner conflict look delicious.”
“I knew his [parents] wouldn’t believe us or care. There was a reason Charlie was such a bright blazing sun. He came from endless cold, black space.”
“Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed. Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”
“Which Zen guy said, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That’s how I feel without Charlie. Like one hand clapping.”
What I Loved About It
Man oh man oh man did I love this book. It’s a coming of age classic in the vein of Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Spectacular Now, and I’m appalled that prior to downloading it from my local public library’s app, I had never heard of it.
Through writing that is equally sharp and beautiful, witty and painful, A.S. King tells the story of Vera Dietz, a girl coping with grief, guilt, and growing up. Though Charlie is already dead at the beginning of the book, King uses flashbacks to create a tragic hero in Charlie, whose abusive father, close and mysterious relationship with a neighborhood pedophile, and impossible love for his best friend, Vera Dietz, make him a tortured, lost boy. And the fact that Vera couldn’t save him in the end, no matter how much Charlie and Vera wanted that to happen, makes this book one of the most emotionally cutting–and realistic–books I’ve read in years. I finished the book during my planning period and sat alone in my classroom bawling about the injustice of life and death and how trapped Charlie felt by his own decisions in the end. You could definitely say this book gave me all the feels.
And then, of course, there’s Vera, whose dad is a former alcoholic and whose absentee mother is a former stripper, and who wrestles with the weight of Charlie’s death, the fact that she didn’t stop it, and the fact that she hasn’t told anyone what really happened the night he died. She’s one of the most complex, relatable, and wittiest characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting in a young adult book.
Through these characters–and with brief asides from the perspective of Vera’s dad (and his many flow charts) and the town pagoda–King is able to write a coming of age story that tackles the big question, “What is your original face, before your mother and father were born?” (this is the book’s epigraph), all while also exploring issues related to alcoholism, reputation, drug abuse, pedophilia, domestic abuse, social responsibility, and identity.
What My Students Could Learn From It
A major lesson this book can teach is about social responsibility. My students’ collective life motto is “snitches get stitches” and A.S. King spends so much time in this book discussing whether it’s actually our responsibility to be a snitch. Here’s a great example of one of the many times the protagonist, Vera Dietz, rants about the problems with this outlook:
“I mean, I ignore plenty of stuff, like school spirit days and the dirty looks I get from the Detentionheads while I try to slink through the halls unnoticed. But there’s something about telling other people what to ignore that just doesn’t work for me. Especially things we shouldn’t be ignoring.
Hear that girl in your class is being abused by her stepfather and had to go to the clinic? Hear she’s bringing her mother’s pills to school and selling them to pay for it? Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Mind your own business. Don’t make waves. Fly under the radar. It’s just one of those things, Vera.
I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. If we’re supposed to ignore everything that’s wrong in our lives, then I can’t see how we’ll ever make things right.” (p. 43)
My students have got to learn that it is their responsibility to make the world better than it was when they entered it, that they can and should help each other and strangers and their friends and enemies. Charlie died because no one ever called the cops on his dad, on the pedophile John, because Vera didn’t save him when he asked to be saved, because no one wanted to be the one who told. This is a lesson I don’t want my students to learn the hard way. I also want my students to see that they don’t have to become their parents, a fate Charlie was convinced he couldn’t avoid, that they can forge a new path for themselves, like Vera was committed to doing.