Charming as a Verb, Ben Philippe’s young adult contemporary novel set in New York City, is the romantic comedy you didn’t know you needed. Which is why I am here to tell you that you do need it. Ben Philippe expertly manages to balance his character’s serious struggles of being a first-generation American through the college admissions process while attending an elite, competitive school with some wholesome relationships and entertaining humor. Charming as a Verb is definitely a romantic comedy, emphasis on the comedy.
Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger is a Haitan-American high school student attending an elite private school on scholarship with the hopes of getting into Columbia, while supposedly working as a dog-walker for Uptown Updogs. Except Uptown Updogs isn’t a real business—it’s a website constructed by Henri to give himself credibility with his richer neighbors so that he can walk their dogs. That is, until his “intense” neighbor Corinne Troy discovers his scheme and uses it to blackmail him into helping her become more sociable at school.
As a reader who is not much older than Henri, the struggles of the college admission process are not far back in my memory. The myth of meritocracy, or “the Great Hunger” as Henri’s dad likes to call it, pushes Henri to achieve opportunities on the level of his classmates through maintaining a high GPA at his prestigious school while balancing his financial and extracurricular responsibilities for a well-rounded application. Henri was raised on the “Haltiwanger Hunger” but sees the opportunities his peers have access to due to their financial and familial status, making it a more difficult dream. These factors lead to Henri’s conflict to balance his understanding of his own desires with his parents’ version of the American Dream. Especially while being immersed in the competitive environment of his school, the Fine Arts Technical Education Academy (FATE) on the Upper West Side.
At the center of the story are the relationships—Henri’s friendship with Ming, the complicated relationships he has with his family, and this strange new possibility developing between him and Corinne. The characters are so well developed, and felt authentic and complex. The book explores struggles of (mis)communication and understanding, especially in Henri’s relationship with his father. I do wish that Philippe spent some more time here, in the conflict of the novel and the messiness of these relationships between Henri and his family. The issues in understanding each other felt incredibly raw and resonant.
All the characters in the novel were well-developed, with even the minor characters being nuanced rather than cardboard cutouts of characters—especially the female characters. From Corinne who is incredibly intelligent and unabashedly outspoken, to her mother who is a professor at an Ivy League, her aunt who runs a bakery, and Henri’s own mother—a firefighter-in-training that Henri jokes is “becoming more ripped than him.” The influential women Henri is surrounded by and gets to meet have a strong sense of self and are incredible at what they do.
The distinct voice and the wonderful characters construct an immersive novel about responsibility, relationships, and finding your place. After reading Charming as a Verb, I will definitely be picking up Ben Philippe’s The Field Guide to the North American Teenager soon. Charming as a Verb is a book with a refreshingly unique voice—read it for the humor, for its authenticity, and for the dogs!