Book Recommendation: Flowers for Algernon

Perhaps one day I’ll read a book published in the last year. Today is not that day. Having just started back to (my last year of) law school, I need to read not-law things, but I want to get lost and hang out in a good story. I don’t want to get a few chapters in and sigh, setting aside the book because this one is just not getting me. Basically, I’m looking for a low risk read. Which makes this a good time to catch up on that pile of recommended books. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes called out to me from my list (plus it was 5 bucks at The Strand).

The Quick and Dirty Plot: A mentally handicapped man becomes part of a scientific experiment that turns him into a genius and just as quickly, but unexpectedly, turns him back.

A lot of friends read this book in high school as part of an English class I apparently did not take, which is how it ended up on my recommendation list (note: most of my friends don’t read these kinds of stories but they know I love them). Aside from the engaging, tragic, beautiful writing, Keyes captures so sharply the experience of wanting to be part of some inner circle and the complications that come if you are ever invited in, because you will never really be one of them. The story is completely told through the eyes of the protagonist (Charlie), and we watch him understand more about the world he wants to be part of, watch him reject it, watch him become a new version of it, and then watch him lose it all, clinging desperately to any piece of it he can. Charlie becomes us and then becomes himself again, and we both want and don’t want that for him.

Things to Note: The book uses the R-word when discussing Charlie and his handicap, but mostly (if not exclusively) as a factual word rather than a purely pejorative one. In addition, the treatment of the female characters is unsurprising for a book penned in the 1960s, but they mostly lack depth and complication and are picked up and used and dropped almost without thought.

If you haven’t read Flowers for Algernon, and the above warnings would not ruin the experience for you, definitely add it to your to-read list (which hopefully doesn’t also involve law school, because no one should wish that on anyone).

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