Review: Charm and Strange

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2013. Library copy. Morris Shortlist.

The Plot: Win, 16, is at a New England boarding school, physically distanced from his family in Virginia, emotionally distanced from his classmates.

Flashbacks show him as an angry child, Drew, sometimes violent.

Win has secrets. Secrets about who he was; who he is; who he may be. And it may involve that body found in the woods near school.

The Good: Can I do this without spoilers?

Charm & Strange is a brilliant look at a damaged child, and the teenager he becomes. It’s about what happens when the world breaks a child, and he’s left alone to pick up the pieces and reconstitute a life and a personality. Even better: Charm & Strange is told entirely from the point of view of Win, who doesn’t recognize the damage or the impact. He is an unreliable narrator who believes he is a telling us the truth.

Win truly believes that he is telling us the truth about what hurt Drew, about why he is now Win, even if he is reluctant or holds details back. Win thinks he is well aware of his own secrets. He doesn’t realize that he embraces a past different from what it really was.

Win/Drew is one of those narrators easily called “unlikable.” I know I did, when I sensed how easily he manipulated those around him, and how little he cared. “The red blossoming beneath her olive skin pleases me.” “She mistakes my distance for mystery, and she wants to know why I do the things I do.” The first flashback to his childhood, to Drew, shows a child angry over the loss of a tennis match. What does Drew do? Sneak up on the boy who won, and attack him so severely he breaks the other child’s jaw.

Win, in his own words, is telling us: I am dangerous. Stay away. Be warned.

Win believes he is a werewolf. Win believes that is his family curse. Win believes he may have changed, and killed the person found dead in the woods by school, and he just doesn’t remember. The reader learns all this on page 23; so, in a way, hardly spoilers.

Why does Win believe this? Why is Win waiting for this to happen?

The flashbacks to Win’s childhood, as Drew, show a privileged and snobby childhood (“our family looked down on everybody“) that is also lacking. The family, we are told, is well off. The father is controlling and judgmental; the mother is distant. There is a sweet younger sister, Siobhan, and a responsible older brother, Keith. Win concentrates on one summer in particular, when he and his older brother stayed with his father’s parents and met his three cousins. This, the summer the boys are almost fourteen and ten, is the summer before the tragedy that leads to Drew calling himself Win and living at a boarding school, before Drew learns things that makes him believe his family is cursed and they are werewolves.

The family is cursed, in a way. And since Win is telling the story — well, I’m not sure if I figured it out before Win because Win is in denial, and Kuehn had him give the reader enough clues that most readers would understand before Win; or if because I’m reading this book as a forty-something reader who brings enough life and reading experiences that I picked up on the clues for those reasons. And, since Win is telling the story, I’m still unsure about who knows what. About just how cursed his family is, to use Win’s own terminology.

What happens, that summer, leads Drew to believe that his family is werewolves and he will one day become one because that reality is easier for him to accept. What happens leads to a tragedy so terrible that Drew is now Win, and has been attending boarding schools since he was twelve.

Win is waiting for his transformation. No, really. He studies the moon, truly believing he will change. His relationship with his classmates is odd and tortured, in part because he isn’t very good at making human connections. But, a new girl at school, and his estranged roommate, turn out to be better friends than perhaps Win deserves. (Or, better than Win thinks he deserves.) As Win attends a late night party in the woods, with this girl and his roommate and his classmates, he studies the moon and watches those around him, and something happens and the violence he keeps inside him comes out.

I’m fairly pleased with how much I’ve danced around the truth of Win’s life. That night, though, forces Win to being to deal with his past. And here is why I also admire Charm & Strange: not only is it a terrific, unique unreliable narrator; but it’s also one that, in the latter half of the books, includes looking at mental health and how Win is treated. It doesn’t shy away from what Win’s beliefs mean, and that they are not something simple and easily taken care of. It’s not something that Win can take care of by himself.

Final observation: Win’s family is pretty bad, all things considered. Since Win doesn’t quite realize it, it’s hard for the reader to know all that has or hasn’t gone on. I look forward to discussing with people just what was going on with his parents, his siblings, his grandparents, his uncle, his cousins.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Katie’s Book Blog; Guys Lit Wire; Presenting Lenore.



2 thoughts on “Review: Charm and Strange

  1. This is definitely one of those books that I’m waiting for people to read so that I can discuss. I was actually surprised at how much I liked Win, even though he was extremely violent and unlikable.


    1. My initial reaction to Win was “uhg, I can’t stand him, this is going to be one of those books where an unlikable character is realistically portrayed so it’ll be good just not something I like spending time with because he’s a psycho creep.” Which, turned out to be not true at all — more like he had created a mask of “psycho creep” to hide his true self.


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