We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Published by Algonquin Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley
From the publisher:
The Freeman family–Charles, Laurel, and their daughters, teenage Charlotte and nine-year-old Callie–have been invited to the Toneybee Institute in rural Massachusetts to participate in a research experiment. They will live in an apartment on campus with Charlie, a young chimp abandoned by his mother. The Freemans were selected for the experiment because they know sign language; they are supposed to teach it to Charlie and welcome him as a member of their family.
Isolated in their new, nearly all-white community not just by their race but by their strange living situation, the Freemans come undone. And when Charlotte discovers the truth about the Institute’s history of questionable studies, the secrets of the past begin to invade the present.
The power of this novel resides in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s undeniable storytelling talents. What appears to be a story of mothers and daughters, of sisterhood put to the test, of adolescent love and grown-up misconduct, and of history’s long reach, becomes a provocative and compelling exploration of America’s failure to find a language to talk about race.
This is a tough one for me. The ideas presented in We Love You, Charlie Freeman are ones that don’t get explored much in fiction and definitely need to – we need to see more novels explore race in complex ways, to look at how racism has, and continues to be, such a huge part of the culture, but a part that we don’t want to talk about, we don’t want to examine, especially within our own hearts and minds. I love that this book does that. I love that this book takes racism and throws it in the readers’ faces – and the characters’ faces – and says, “look at me! I’m here! I’m a problem! You must figure out a way to talk about and address and maybe attempt to resolve me!”. While I love all of that, I didn’t love how the novel itself came together in a lot of ways.
Part of the issue for me was the chimp stuff was really, truly dark. I was expecting the family/chimp dynamic to be similar to a few other novels I’ve read on the subject, novels that portray this relationship as that of a family – perhaps the chimp becomes like a sibling to the kids in the family, or at the very least like a beloved family dog, part of the family in a very concrete way. That didn’t happen here. I get why it couldn’t happen, not just for the animal research part of the story but also for the greater arc of the story Greenidge was telling about this family, but it just was not fun to read about. This chimp, Charlie, did not like anyone in the family except for the mother, who he was of course obsessed with. This led to there being this level of tension just under the surface, in every single interaction between any two members of this family. It just felt so uncomfortable, and dangerous, because who knows what Charlie was capable of. I can also say that this feeling shows how talented of a writer Greenidge is, but in my case I just didn’t enjoy feeling that way throughout almost the entire book.
I did like how we saw this story from multiple points of view, and multiple time periods. I also liked how Charlotte’s sexuality was explored, but not in a showy way or like the author was trying to make a point, it was just part of her coming of age and growing up and figuring out who she is, what she likes, etc.
Like I said, We Love You Charlie Freeman is really a difficult one for me to “review”. Greenidge tried to do a lot with the book and I think she was successful in some areas, in others, not so much. I do plan to keep an eye out for her as an author, because I think she’s got excellent ideas and will continue to write smart, interesting books that push the envelope.