I was able to catch Kaitlyn Greenidge as she sat on a panel at the San Antonio Book Festival with other novelists who recently debuted their first published book. She spoke about We Love You, Charlie Freeman, her writing process, and her writing history. Just from reading the book jacket, it was obvious that her debut novel would be anything but ordinary, so it was an easy decision for me to buy it, and a great honor for her to sign it for me.
The Situation: Charlotte Freeman and her family are moving from Boston to the Toneybee Institute in rural Massachusetts. The Toneybee Institute specializes in studying chimpanzees and their ability to learn language and communicate with human beings. The Freeman family, which also includes Charlotte's mother, Laurel; her father, Charles; and her younger sister, Callie; were picked among many families because they already knew sign language, and would therefore be a great help in working with one particular chimp named Charlie. The family is given an apartment on campus, where they will live with Charlie, and the girls each start at new schools while Charles will teach math at Charlotte's school. If it seems like a fairly dramatic shift and change for the family, it's because it is, and it is certainly a lot to ask of two young girls. But the Freemans make the transition anyway, and it is clear from the very first night, when Charlie has his first outburst, that things are not going to be easy.
The Problem: The transition itself is going to be pretty tough, but the level of investment that Laurel has in the experiment ends up verging on the disturbing. It soon becomes apparent that Laurel is willing to subject herself and her family to increasingly difficult demands, as long as it means the family stays a part of the experiment, and she remains number one in Charlie's life. Meanwhile, Charlotte happens upon some information about the Toneybee's past practices that makes her even more wary of this new environment her family has moved into. It turns out that the institute used to conduct experiments on African Americans, experiments they also conducted on the chimps. And the fact that the Freemans are also African American does not engender any confidence for Charlotte. If anything, it makes her determined to expose the Toneybee Institute for what it is and make her parents see what is really going on. But while she gathers up the courage to take a stand, her sister Callie steadily gains weight; her mother becomes increasingly attached to the temperamental chimp; and even Charlotte's steadfast and grounded father becomes distant. It is a situation that cannot hold together for long, and only threatens to tear apart the family the longer it goes on.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set primarily in the year 1990, although there are some letters that come from 1929, when the Toneybee Institute first began studying chimpanzees. The book's narrative is mostly told from Charlotte's point of view, but there are a couple of chapters that focus on Charles and Callie, one that focuses on Laurel, and a few more that come from a woman who was friends with one of the doctors from the institute in 1929. Even the founder of the institute, Julia Toneybee-Leroy, has a letter in the novel that she wrote for all African American people. Of course the book is about race, but that is not all that it is about, and not in the way that a book like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is about race. Because of the Toneybee Institute's past practices, and the creepiness of their current ones, there is plenty of doubt about their intentions for this experiment. And this doubt is enough to test an entire family. If anything, Charlotte learns that family can let you down, friends can let you down, and it is foolish to think that being chosen for an experiment and taking care of an animal will make anyone feel happy and fulfilled, especially if that is the only thing you have any hope in. And what is most interesting (at least to me), is that even the two girls are mature enough not to blame Charlie for everything that is going wrong.
My Verdict: This book is not disturbing in the way that a horror movie or book would be, but it is still incredibly upsetting, and not just because of the history of the Toneybee Institute and the implications that history can make for what is happening with Charlotte's family. In fact, most of my discomfort comes from the actions of Laurel and how attached she is to Charlie. It is one thing to take pride in your work and to want to do a good job and fulfill what you have signed up to do. It is another thing to make your family second because of some strange need to feel special. But even with this discomfort, I still enjoyed the book and believe it is making an important statement regarding race and the progress (as well as lack of progress) we have made with the subject. What Greenidge does, similar to Junot Diaz with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Paul Beatty with The Sellout, is she just did what I have heard Diaz refer to as "going for broke," and it worked.
Favorite Moment: When Laurel is found out by on outside family for what she is really doing.
Favorite Character: Though we are not given much access to his story, Charles would end up being my favorite character. He does not have much of a presence, especially when the strong will of his wife is involved, but he is probably the most grounded one of the family, and the one most willing to face facts, eventually.
Recommended Reading: While also disturbing, Paul Beatty's The Sellout is more humorous than anything, and will make you laugh for almost all of the wrong reasons.