I am a HUGE fan of Philippe’s debut, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager. I’ve come to associate Philippe with endearing characters who are not only relatable with their quirks and dreams, but also with their fears and mistakes. That’s absolutely the same for Charming as a Verb! Keep reading this book review to find out why I loved this one too!
Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.
There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.
Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .
(Disclaimer: I received this book from Edelweiss. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
Henri is a high achiever. Balancing the FATE academy, his dog walking business, and his reputation for being probably the seventh most popular teen, he’s going places. And the college he will be going to in the fall is Columbia, they just don’t know it yet. Charming as a Verb is a story about dreams and ambition, sacrifice and mistakes. It’s a story that begins on full charm mode. But one that illustrates its depths as Henri navigates being a first generation child of immigrants with their own dreams. As he navigates the incredibly privileged school he goes to and the wealth, and opportunity, gap between his classmates.
Henri’s Narrative Voice
From the beginning of Charming as a Verb, I fell for the narrative voice. Henri is, for lack of a better word, charming. He seems to be balancing all these plates at once, twirling them with flare and smiles. But what Philippe doesn’t shy away from, and what makes this book so emotional, is Henri’s narration of what lies behind the scenes. The ways his growing up experiences are vastly different than his peers. All the pressure he feels, not only in terms of finances, but also in terms of his family’s dreams.
He’s incredibly driven and committed to his future, as well as part of an ambitious immigrant family focused on truly making it. But what Philipe begins to ask, just as we are used to Henri’s charm, is: what is Henri’s dream? It’s a thread that is explored throughout the pages as Henri is pulled into a blackmail scheme that ends up being more than each of them bargained.
This brings me to another part of what I loved about Charming as a Verb: the side characters. I ADORE Corinne. Not only does she say what she is thinking, all the time, but she also voices these relatable thoughts. Her confusion about the social games we play with each other. The jokes that people make which garner laughs without explanation – EXPLAIN THIS! And more. But at Corinne’s core, there’s also just a girl who’s trying to fit in more. One who’s extremely driven, but kind of realizes high school passed her by as she was studying, and at the end is wondering what was the magic elixir she seemed to miss out on.
And then there’s Ming, Henri’s best friend who was ADOPTED FROM CHINA. Excuse me, but what?? I need a whole book about Ming please because that’s the representation I so direly need. But also Ming was a precious cinnamon roll and I love him.
But what makes Charming as a Verb stand out is not only how relatable the characters are, in their best of moments, but also in their worst. The acts which tempt us as we feel our dreams slipping away. That deep feeling of injustice as we witness how privilege still factors into Henri’s life. The ways wealth means more opportunities and the ways Henri doesn’t have the same possibilities, managing his dog walking, while his classmates have multiple tutors. Or the wealth gap which leaves guilt in Henri’s stomach.
Charming as a Verb is also about the dangers of tying our whole identity to a list of things which don’t end up belonging to us. Which we thought would make us happy, or fulfill us, but end up having origins that don’t belong to us. Henri’s experiences not only are extremely close to an experience I’ve only heard about, from friends, about those with immigrant parents and the weights of their dreams and expectations. The ways these hopes and dreams weigh heavier than others.
Charming as a Verb has it all. It has family, romance, banter, friendship, and dreams all wrapped in one. It’s a book that will make you laugh, will speak to a piece of your fears, and remind you of your own mistakes. Philipe manages to convey those feelings of dreams and consequences all in one sentence. The experience of not only being charming, but needing to be charming. Needing to use it like a verb because it means the difference in your survival, in the opportunities you would never have otherwise, and how necessary it is for some people.