Published: June 11, 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin
Received: From library
Summary (from Goodreads): Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.
He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.
He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.
Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.
Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.
It’s not often that I have any sort of visceral reaction to a book. I can read some of the goriest, most disturbing scenes in horror novels and only mutter “oh, ew” or pull an exaggerated face of disgust. I read a lot of YA “issue” novels that deal with dark and upsetting subjects, but they rarely upset me to a point beyond maybe tearing up a little.
Charm and Strange, however, definitely did get a reaction from me as things about Andrew’s past came to light – it made me feel physically ill. I know that sounds bad – “this book made me feel sick” is not, generally, a glowing compliment, but considering the subject matter I think it’s an appropriate reaction. This is not an easy read, especially if you’re triggered by discussions of abuse, which I wish the jacket summary had been clearer about. I didn’t know what Charm and Strange was about going in, and its Goodreads page lists it as paranormal, so I’d assumed that it was just going to be a dark paranormal mystery. It, um… wasn’t. Not exactly the nicest surprise for someone who needs to mentally prepare themselves before reading about this sort of thing. I realize giving away just what happened to Andrew would spoil the shock of finding out, but I would have liked some sort of warning as to the book’s content.
As far as writing goes: Charm and Strange has an incredibly strong narrative voice. I’ll be honest, I don’t find a lot of male narrators in YA to be very compelling; ones I find distinctive are few and far between. Thankfully, this is one of the ones I do. Andrew’s voice is a little bit hard to get used to at first – he uses a lot of fragmented sentences, and he doesn’t reveal anything about himself very easily. He’s also… not the most likeable of people, even admitting he’s “not a good person.” He purposefully cuts himself off from others, and even reads like he’s throwing up walls between himself and reader in the chapters set in the present. As someone who thinks that writers and reviewers both put too much stock in characters being “likeable,” I thought Andrew was a unique and fascinating protagonist, flaws and all, but, of course, that’s all subjective.
There isn’t much to say regarding the plot that wouldn’t be considered a spoiler. Watching Charm and Strange unfold and give you one tiny piece of the truth at a time is one of its strongest points, and to say more than I already have would take away from that. The book’s – and Andrew’s – unwillingness to give up any easy answers about what happened may be frustrating for a lot of readers, and I can tell it’s going to be a DNF for some. I personally liked that aspect a lot – it matches up perfectly with Andrew trying to push his past away, and the denial he keeps himself in. The reader is getting pieces of the story at the rate he lets himself remember them.
I absolutely loved the secondary characters in this novel, too. Jordan, the first to appear, is blunt and no-nonsense, and while she’s part of what drives Andrew’s story forward it’s not in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl way. She’s a very real character who’s made mistakes in the past and is a genuinely good person, and I kind of want a book just about her, because what little we learn about her past sounds like it would make an amazing story of its own. Lex starts off being just a douchebag, but as the night goes on we see that he really is a good friend to Andrew, and cares a hell of a lot about him. And Andrew’s brother Keith – he absolutely broke my heart. I love Keith, even if I can’t say much about him without giving some very important things away. I’ll admit it, I shed a tear over what Andrew has to say about him at the end of the book.
This is far from being a typical YA novel, even alongside other books dealing with similarly dark subjects, and I appreciate that. There is no easy ending, no happily ever after. No world is saved or bad guy vanquished or girl’s heart won. Andrew’s story ends on a positive note, but a realistic one – it’s clear that he still has a lot to work through and a lot of progress left to make, and that he won’t be easily fixed. Despite all that, it wraps up in a way I found completely satisfying, and touching without being cheesy. Charm and Strange was not an easy book for me to read, and I can’t imagine that was an easy story to tell, but it was absolutely worth it. This is an incredible, haunting book that I won’t be able to stop thinking about for a long time to come.