Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon
By: Daniel Keyes
Published By: Mariner Books
Publication Date: March 1966
Page Count: 324 pages
Buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Source: paperback
Audience: Fiction/Sci-Fi

When I told my fellow larks that I was reviewing this book, I said I was "going old school." I suppose it's strange for a 50 year old book to show up in a book review, but I like the classics and I don't think a reminder about a great book you've neglected reading (or forgotten to recommend to your son or daughter or students or friends) is such a bad thing. ;) And with the recent popularity of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I thought this was a good throwback review. 

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded young adult, who is the first human test subject for an intelligence-heightening operation that has only been done previously on mice. It sounds like a simple enough story in that one sentence, but it is SO much more. The layers in this story, once you start to think about the repercussions of Charlie's increase in intelligence and awareness, are never-ending. To say that people treat him differently, in both positive and negative ways, is an understatement. And as Charlie begins to understand human motivations, human emotions, and (dare I say it) human urges, the world that he has known for years crumbles to the ground. 

One of the things I love about Flowers for Algernon is the writing and format of the story. The story is told in journal form from Charlie's point of view and Keyes does such an excellent job writing as a mentally challenged 20-something it didn't surprise me to learn he once taught English to mentally challenged adults, one of whom gave him the idea for this story. Charlie's spelling and grammar are appalling and sometimes, even with an understanding of phonics, you sometimes have to go back and re-read a word or phrase to understand it. But that is the genius in this book, you see the progression of Charlie's increasing IQ through his use of language and the length and depth of his writing.

The other things I love about Flowers for Algernon are the questions and emotions it bring up for the reader. I use this in my 10th grade classroom and my students absolutely positively, without a doubt, LOVE this book. They cry. They cheer. They yell. They get angry. And best of all they remember it years later. This book makes you question our treatment of the mentally disabled, how relationships are formed, what importance parents play in a person's development, what role science has in our lives - and you question what you know about power and love and fear and sadness and joy.

On the surface, Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction story (yes, it's technically sci-fi, but so little of the book is about the operation itself I labelled it as Fiction because that's what I think it is) about a retarded young man who participates in an experiment to increase his IQ. But at its core, this is a story about relationships and people. Also, I should mention that Algernon is the mouse who has had the experiment before they tried it on Charlie. Yes he is an important part of the story at the beginning and the end, but I can't give everything away in this review now, can I? ;)

Finally, as a teacher and parent, I do need to say that though Andrea and I both read this in middle school, this isn't a book for the average middle grade student (we were both mature readers and my mom was an English teacher so books like Flowers for Algernon were what I had around the house). There are some racy scenes when Charlie gets his first girlfriend (I use the term "girlfriend" loosely) and some heavy drinking, but none of it is unnecessarily glorified and there is nothing I have a problem with in this book for my 10th grade students. The biggest concern I have with recommending this book to younger readers is their ability to deal with its mature concepts and the questions (and outrage) it bring up in its readers. But, to me, that's what makes a book a GREAT book instead of just a good book...

Final Word: One of my favorites as a teenager and still one of my favorites as an adult. An emotional and insightful read and a story of love, loss, and longing to be smarter, be better and the unexpected results that can produce. Just imagine how transforming from a underdeveloped 5-year-old to a MENSA-level genius would do to a person... (PS If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time you will like this book.)

Goodreads Summary: 

In this classic story that inspired the hit movie by the same name. Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled adult who cleans floors and toilets, becomes a genius through an experimental operation.


  1. I really appreciate reading reviews of classics once in a while. If I've read them, it brings it all back. If I haven't, it encourages me to pick it up (if it's a positive review.) I actually have not read this one, and intend to put it on my list for "someday." Thanks!

    1. Annette, I tend to review classics more than the other larks. I like the variety we have here and that all of the reviewers are free to review just about anything they want. :)

  2. Wow, what a wonderful, thoughtful review! I'd be happy for you to review the classics any time :)

    1. Thank you!! This is a personal favorite from my childhood. My mom was an English teacher and I was in college before I realized that not everyone had things like this laying around for pleasure reading. ;) I love my classics!

  3. It's always nice to go back to the classics. As for this book I remember reading it back in 8th grade as a class. I didn't like it back then, I'm sure I won't like it as much even now, although I'll most likely appreciate and have a better understanding of it now that I am older. We watched the movie in class too!

    1. You might give it a try. I find that 10th grade is really the earliest i want to introduce/recommend this novel to students. The maturity level and ability to empathize (vs. sympathize) just isn't there yet until then. :)

  4. This is a beautiful and sad book, I love it, I like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time too, awesome classic books :)

  5. Classic novels are some of the best novels.

  6. I remember first reading this in college. It builds you up and then tears you down. It's one of the most moving novels I've ever read to this day.

  7. I cried so much with the book - it was required reading but it was so real and heartbreaking.

    Lovely review :)


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