Is there anything more satisfying than finding someone who shares your unpopular opinions? I’ll get to We Love You, Charlie Freeman in just a bit, but let me back up for a minute. About a year ago, I read Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows and fell in love with it. All My Puny Sorrows is so beautiful and funny and tragic, and the characters feel both universal and totally unique at the same time. I loved the book so much that as soon as I finished it, I went to my local bookstore to buy a copy for a friend. I gave it to her and she…didn’t love it. I was disappointed but, hey, these things happen.
Fast forward to a few months later—I’m back at the same bookstore and notice that All My Puny Sorrows is one of their staff recommendations, which inspires me to go through the whole store finding the little cards indicating all of this staff member’s other recommendations (it’s a small store, this isn’t as stalkerish as it sounds). And that is how I found Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
This book tells the story of a family who travels from Boston to the Toneybee Institute, a research center where the mother has been hired as a sign language instructor for a young chimpanzee abandoned by its mother. The whole family is expected to be involved in the project, treating the young chimp (now called Charlie) as a member of the family. The book shifts among different characters, but is told primarily from the point of view of the older daughter, 14-year-old Charlotte. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows about the history of attempts to teach language to apes, the project does not go as planned. Each family member responds to the challenges of their unusual situation differently, in ways that feel authentic to who the characters are.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman touches on many topics: family, how we relate to non-human animals, the history of race in the US, linguistics, fiascoes. Seriously, it has something for everyone, but is particularly recommended if you liked: Project Nim, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, or All My Puny Sorrows.