Desert Isle Keeper
Charming as a Verb
Some books jump out of the deep, fathomless ocean of creativity and arc through the imagination of their readers, with characters that stick in the back of your mind for months after you’ve closed the back cover. Ben Philippe’s Henri Haltiwanger is one such creation – memorable in a totally fresh way – and it’s worth reading Charming as a Verb to watch him move through life in his corner of the world.
Henri is – well, the personification of the word charming. His classmates at the prestigious FATE Academy love him; he’s the king of the debate team, and the rich uptown folks who employ his dog walking service – Uptown Dogs – can’t stop raving about his hard work. Henri’s father’s biggest dream for Henri has him attending Columbia University and joining the Ivy League – and Henri is doing everything he can to make that hope a reality.
Unfortunately, Henri’s interview is disastrous, and he starts to fear he’ll never make it to the big dance. Then Corrine Troy, a classmate whose mother is the dean at Columbia (with whom Henri bombed his interview) – approaches him. She says she’ll assist Henri with his application if he’ll do her a favor in return – help her change her image from intense and studious to wild and party-hearty, and leaves Henri with no choice but to agree. She’s found out that he is secretly posing as an employee of Uptown Dogs, a commercial dog walking service, and is redirecting assignments from them via a fake website he’s created, and if he doesn’t help her, she’ll make that fact known.
Henri’s motives for helping Corrine may not start out as altruistic, but soon enough he starts caring just as much about her as he does about getting into Columbia. But will their scheming be discovered? Will Henri make it to Columbia? And will Corrine ever be seen as cool by their peers?
A lot of the charm and power of Charming as a Verb come from Henri, who is a charismatic and interesting hero – imperfect, but lovable, hardworking but absolutely willing to take advantage of a system that’s willing to abuse him. But he does go too far in the name of his own interest, and when he does the novel points it out and allows him to realize his mistakes and improve from there.
Henri is a first-generation American and his parents, Haitian immigrants, each see the American dream as a different and formidable thing. For Henri’s father, a superintendent in their apartment building, it’s a place where his son can be educated to the highest standards; for his mother, it’s a land where she can join the firefighting department and help people in her adopted country. Henri adores his family and doesn’t want to let them down, and a lot of his motivation revolves around them, and it’s wonderful to see it.
I also enjoyed Henri’s relationship with his best friend, Ming, and together, they feel like two teens who have known one another forever and understand each other’s faults and limits. I hope Philippe will write a book about Ming eventually.
The only points I’m taking off the final grade stem from how rushed and telling-instead-of-showing the nature of Henri and Corrine’s relationship is. Corrine as a character makes a lot of sense and grows beautifully during the book – she’s been hemmed in by academia and her intense personality makes her just-as-intense quest for a good time make sense. But while Henri and Corrine have some cute scenes before they become a couple, but there’s not quite enough on- page evidence to convince me that they’ve flipped the curve from acquaintance to coupledom. I liked them together, but their romance felt a little rushed.
Charming as a Verb is, well – charming and nuanced, a good portrait of life in New York and on the grind every ambitious teenager contemplates or finds themselves on when they approach their college years. Any teenager will appreciate giving it a read, and many of them will relate to Henri’s life, for better or for worse.