Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Dark Side of Monkey Business: Kaitlyn Greenidge's We Love You, Charlie Freeman

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I saw that Greenidge's debut novel was a Kobo Daily Deal. I am trying to read as many of the Tournament of Book finalists this year, and Greenidge's work made the final 16 so I snatched it up. Although I had heard it pitched by Liberty Hardy on Book Riot's  All The Books Podcast, I had little idea of what the content actually was...and wow that is not what I expected.


We Love You, Charlie Freeman is the story of the Freeman family, a Bostonian African American family whose matriarch is a trained sign language instructor hired by a prestigious institute committed to studying human-chimpanzee communication. The entire family, each of whom is fluent in sign, moves into the institute and live with an emotionally broken and vulnerable chimp named Charlie, whom the family embraces as one of their own.

Told through the eyes of each family member, with an additional flash-back narrator (Nymphadora) who worked with a doctor from the institute in its early years, Greenidge offers a close inspection of how this odd family dynamic slowly tears apart the tight-knit group. Mostly told through the gaze of the oldest daughter (Charlotte), we slowly learn that the institute had engaged in Tuskegee-like experiments in the 1920s, where racist scientists sought to compare African American and Chimpanzee bodily forms and communication abilities. Charlotte, disgusted by this past and by her mother's growing inappropriate intimacy with Charlie, tries to destabilize the circumstances she is trapped in, which results in the climactic blow-up and exposure of the dark past and present practices of the institute.

As a debut novel, Greenidge has offered us a really meaty treatment of a very odd plot. Heavy questions of racial prejudice in scientific research and institutional defenses for their past behaviours is confronted head on. Add to that the complex issues of family breakdown that results from a spouse's career ambition, we are left with a complex social and family drama that demands further discussion. This will be a great book for the Tournament of Books and I hope it makes it forward at least a round or two so we can be exposed to more intelligent discussion on the matter.

That said, there are issues that made this a less than perfect book (I ended up only giving it three stars on Goodreads). Significant plot developments involving the mother's growing emotional and physical attachment to Charlie or the youngest daughter's obsession with obtaining Charlie's acceptance seem to come to fruition without preparing the reader for them. It felt like Greenidge was asked to cut portions of the novel that would have filled in these gaps and efforts to close the gaps left the reader wondering "what the hell just happened." I am being purely speculative here, but first-time authors are probably under enormous pressure to accept the recommendation of their editors and editors are too quick to cut down the length of their books, even if the final product suffers as a result.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, was an original and well told story and I those following the TOB should definitely pick it up as I believe it will lead to some of the best discussion. That said, I feel somewhat unsatisfied feeling that Greenidge did not quite achieve the potential this book could have offered.


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