Review: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

Charm & Strange Book Cover Charm & Strange
Stephanie Kuehn

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.

Review:

Allow me to apologize in advance: this is going to be a very brief book review. This isn’t for lack of good things to say about Charm & Strange – if anything, the opposite is true. Kuehn’s novel impressed me greatly, even as it left me shaken and chilled. It’s not a book I’m going to be able to forget, whether I want to or not, and for that reason I highly recommend it.

The challenge for me as a reviewer is that just about anything I tell you about this book will send us into spoiler territory and ruin the story for you. So, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that Charm & Strange is a powerful book, one you should check out at your earliest opportunity.

One of the few things I can share with you is a brief introduction to the book’s protagonist, Andrew Winston Winters. When I read the synopsis on the book jacket, the mention of Andrew being  “part Win” and “part Drew” led me to believe I’d be reading about a boy suffering from multiple personality disorder. After I started the book, though, I realized this wasn’t the case. What the synopsis is actually referring to is the way the book’s chapters alternate between scenes in the present and scenes from the past.

The portions of the book set in the past are told from the point of view of 10-year-old Drew, as Andrew’s family calls him in his childhood. The curious thing about these sections is that although Drew’s story is told in the innocent and candid manner of a child, the story itself is incongruously mature. At one point, for example, Drew smashes one of his peers in the face with a tennis racquet.  He also experiences extreme mood swings, his emotions surging from happy to violent to panicky to self-loathing. The intensity of these emotions is alarming, as is the frequency with which they change.

In the chapters that are set in the present, Andrew, or “Win,” as he is now known, is a 16-year-old loner at a fancy New England prep school. As a teenager, he is a tad less volatile than his 10-year-old self, and yet something about him still seems off. He has a reputation for being standoffish and arrogant, and at times he barely seems to be holding onto his self-control.

The juxtaposition of the past and present is intriguing, and Drew/Win is one of the most complex protagonists I’ve read about in a long time. Both “versions” of the boy are troubled, leading the reader to suspect that something is very, very wrong and has been for years. The journey to discovering the source of that wrongness is sometimes confusing, sometimes disturbing, and always intense.

This brings me, abruptly, to the end of what I can share with you. Again, I realize it’s not much, more of a teaser than a real review, but trust me, it’s better this way. You need to read Charm & Strange for yourself, as quickly as you can. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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