Charming As a Verb
Charming As a Verb
“I’m putting it out to the universe now. There’s nothing more I can do. I did my best. And if it’s not enough, then Princeton wasn’t for me, y’know?”
Did you do your best? I hear, in Dad’s voice. I shake the thought away.
“Or I’m just waiting for the actual rejection letter before burning this city to the ground with the fire of a thousand dragons. We’ll see,” she continues.
I snort. That seems like a very plausible course of action.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“You know those intolerable kids who get into, like, every Ivy League college? And then someone interviews then, and they trend online and are always so obnoxiously smug and earnest at the same time?”
Her eye roll confirms that she does. Anyone who has ever even Googled the requirements for a top college has come across those smug little bastards laying out their admission letters on the kitchen table for the local news anchor while their parents beam in the corner.
“I really thought I was going to be one of them,” I say.
The thing with being good at lying to others is that you end up being pretty great at lying to yourself too.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Haltiwanger. Like I said, it’s the great promise of the 0-generation,” Corinne says. “Either you’re exceptional or a nobody. No permission to be anything in between. It’s bullshit.”
It may be the first time I’ve hear Corinne Troy curse out loud. It’s pretty hot.
“It’s getting late,” she says as she begins to gather her things. “I’m meeting my mom at the IFC Center for this retrospective.”
We’ve been at it for close to a full hour already, I realize. Time tends to dissipate with Corinne.
“Are you headed home?” she asks, coat on and books in hand. “Want to walk out together?”
I think of home. Of our tiny apartment, my tinier bedroom – and Dad with all his hopes and dreams for me in the next room. Suddenly going through the Binder of Colleges That Are Not Columbia feels slightly nauseating. Security keeps the school open until nine for students anyway.
“I think I’ll give this a read here,” I say. “Better lighting and I don’t feel like going home just yet.”
It’s the final year of high school, a bittersweet time – the excitement and anxiety of looking ahead along with the nostalgia of what will be left behind. And Henri, the main character, is feeling both the highs and lows. He keeps busy with his dog-walking business, his star position on the debate team and the need to study hard and obtain top marks at the FATE academy. Underneath it all is his ambition to be accepted at Columbia University, not letting anything stand in the way of his dream. During this busy senior year, Henri discovers Corinne Troy, a classmate and neighbour who has been there all along but only now registers on Henri’s social radar. But despite this undercurrent of academic worry and social busy-ness, Henri presents himself as charming, a bit of a hustler and smooth talker who can generally get whatever he wants with a word and his trademark smile. But that’s the catch. Henri has to separate what he wants for himself from what others want for him.
Ben Philippe gives his readers a memorable main character that he presents with compassion, understanding and humour. Readers will enjoy Henri’s pleasant personality and will relate to his actions and decisions, both good and bad. Henri may seem a little shallow and superficial at first with his innate good nature and his belief that looks and charm will take him anywhere he wants to go. By the end of the novel, he has grown and matured a great deal. He takes responsibility for his actions and suffers the consequences of some poor decisions.
Henri’s parents are immigrants from Haiti to New York City, and they play an important role in shaping his character. His mom is a go-getter who believes in following her passions and going after her dreams. Dad also once had big dreams, but the reality of supporting a family has meant life spent as the superintendent of the apartment building where the family lives. Henri inherits a little of both parents and is only too aware that his dad’s dreams have somehow become his. The pressure to attend Columbia and have a better life than that of his parents becomes an overriding theme of the novel. Eventually, Henri takes charge of his own life and realizes that the most important thing he can do after secondary school is understand himself and do what will make him happy.
Love interest Corinne is a character who will appeal to young adult readers. She is “intense”, a description she often hears, doesn’t like, and strives to change. She is also smart, funny, willing to say what she thinks, not averse to blackmail when necessary, and a good foil for Henri’s more suave approach to life. Philippe might have spent a little more time on the reasons for this romance ever catching fire, but readers will be happy to accept it as presented. Henri’s good friend Ming is another excellent secondary character. When not swooning over sneakers, his first passion, Ming proves to be accepting and understanding – exactly the qualities one might want in a loyal friend.
The overall theme of the novel is one which will appeal to young adults in secondary school since the characters in this same age group are faced with life choices about friendship, love and post-secondary education and careers. Philippe also touches on some more universal themes, not shying away from important and timely concerns like the ever-widening divide between rich and poor as well as the ongoing issues of immigration and racism. All of Philippe’s themes are approached in a serious manner, and yet his tone in the book is one of humour and a good-natured acceptance of his characters and their world.
Philippe writes what he knows, whether it involves Haiti, Montreal or New York City and does so with intelligence, compassion and a fun-loving spirit which is hard to resist. Young adult readers will enjoy Charming As a Verb and hopefully use some of Henri’s experience to help in making their own life decisions.
Ann Ketcheson is a retired high school teacher-librarian and classroom teacher of English and French who lives in Ottawa, Ontario.