Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio - A story for a lifetime


“You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.”


Over the last few years, I had considered writing a book review on several occasions. But somehow, I never quite got the push to do so. ‘Wonder’ has changed all that in one go. It has compelled me to write the first book review of my life. Letting it go, I felt, would have been grave injustice to this incredible piece of literature.  




Plot: The story of ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio revolves around ten-year-old August Pullman who suffers from a rare medical facial deformity, more commonly known as Treacher Collins syndrome. "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse,” is what August says right at the beginning of the story. The author never directly describes the countenance of August’s face – a masterstroke, in my opinion. Through subtle clues across the story, we get to learn more about his craniofacial abnormality.   

Because of his condition, August his homeschooled all his life; until the beginning of this story that is. As the story begins, we learn that August’s medical situation is now stable and hence his parents decide to finally admit him in a proper school. Skeptical at first, August finally agrees to attend school; a decision that turns out to be a life-altering one for August.
Thus begins an eventful, fascinating, endearing, moving, at times heartbreaking but thoroughly charming and inspiring tale.  

As August encounters new people at his school, we see how the kids react to him; some get scared, some laugh behind his back and some are plain rude to him. In fact, the kids at the school create a game called the ‘Plague’ where kids are supposed to catch a “disease” if they touch August. Then there is this bully Julian who, for some reason, dislikes August to the core and goes out of his way to make life even more miserable for him at school than it already is.

Because of this, August is always ultra-alert to how people react to him. August is also very brave and quite friendly and easygoing by nature. He ends up making two friends at school: Summer, a girl who he befriends in the school cafeteria and who likes Auggie for who he is, and Jack, a boy in August’s class. Jack, incidentally, was August’s “assigned” friend and the two share a very interesting friendship through the story which goes through ups and downs.

August also has extremely loving and caring parents and an elder sister who is fiercely supportive of him through and through and patiently understands the myriad emotions he goes through because of his condition. There is also his compassionate headmaster, Mr. Tushman, who realizes what August is going through at school and is one of the few people there who goes out of his way to lend him a helping hand.

Eventually, August finds his place among the school kids – by means of some confrontation and drama at the final stages – and through a stirring and uplifting end gives a heartfelt and universal message : of overcoming intolerance and always choosing to be kind.


What I liked about Wonder


It’s extremely moving, humane and sincere: Although the story does tend to manipulate the readers through varied, and not very subtle emotional situations, it still makes for delightful reading as it touches your heartstrings and is very honest and deft in its presentation. August’s interactions with his family, especially his mother, are very honestly and beautifully captured and so are his moments in school – this part, in fact, should remind a lot of people, in different ways, about their respective school lives. And although the story doesn’t have any thrill or suspense, it has a lot of heart, simplicity, and sincerity in its storytelling. Wonder is a human story at the core and, without being overdramatic or maudlin, tells a very simple tale having valuable life lessons.


Central character worth rooting for: Like any good story, Wonder has a central
character worth rooting for. August Pullman, despite his oddities, is a very likable ten-year-old and does and says things that are very relatable. Although he struggles with his facial deformity and how people react to him at times, but mostly he takes it in his stride and even learns to have fun with it. He is a sensitive, brave and loving kid who takes the insurmountable odds he faces at such a young age quite positively. This makes August worth rooting for.


The alternate POVs: Wonder is not solely told through the voice of August Pullman; although his is definitely the primary one. Through the point of views of different characters, we get to know more about August, his past, his features and his overall character. There is Via, his sister; Summer, his friend at school; Jack, with whom he shares a complicated friendship; Justin, Via’s boyfriend, and Miranda, Via’s ex-best friend who also shares a deep relationship with August. The POVs of these characters are certainly very interesting. I will admit, at first I was unhappy to shift from August’s voice, which I had found so engrossing, to the others. But gradually, the voices of the other narrators grow on you as you learn different shades about Auggie’s life and how the people around him view him. It’s quite enlightening and at times moving.


Perfect underdog, coming-of-age story: August Pullman is the perfect underdog. His facial deformity and the way most people are rude to him makes you want this underdog to succeed against all odds and prove the world wrong.

Also, August’s apprehensions at going to school for the first time, the trials and tribulations he goes through there, and how he comes out shining through it all with some uplifting changes in his life, makes Wonder the perfect coming-of-age story.


Language and style: The one thing that makes Wonder so enjoyable is it’s simple and lucid language and writing style. R.J. Palacio writes in short, simple sentences and never uses grandiloquent words to impress. This style is perfect for this kind of a story. So, August’s narration is written in exactly the manner a 10-year-old’s thought process should be. The other characters that appear in the book, too, speak and think according to their ages. The chapters are not more than 2-3 pages long and the story keeps moving at a swift pace. All this makes reading Wonder an easy and pleasant experience.


Insightful quotes: While Wonder has an extremely moving and engaging story, what I also loved about it was many of its poignant dialogues. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such an array of simple, wonderful and well-meaning quotes. A few of them which I really loved are these:





"I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives." – August says this when his sister, Via, gets a standing ovation for her performance at the school play. This quote shows Auggie's desire to be appreciated and loved.

"I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we go to see what we looked like under the masks." – this is an insightful thought by August and highlights how he craves to be known for more than his looks, how he desires to lead a normal life.

"If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, wherever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place." – is said by the headmaster Mr. Tushman at the fifth-grade graduation towards the end. Like many of his quotes, this too is extremely thought-provoking, true to life, and inspiring. The essence of these lines actually runs through the novel.

"If it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. And the universe doesn't. It takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can't see… the universe makes it all even out in the end. The universe takes care of all its birds.” – this is my favourite quote in the book and is said by Justin, Via’s boyfriend who understands how cruel life has been for August and yet he goes on to realize that there are many out there around Auggie, who, through different ways, are taking care of him. It’s a beautiful and touching line.


The Precepts: Apart from these, there are the ‘Percepts’ that stands out in the book. Introduced by August’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, who describes them as “rules about really important things”, the precepts were a sheer masterstroke by Palacio. Mr. Browne asks the students to come up with their own precepts and some of them really left a mark. They are so simple and yet so deep and meaningful that all of us would do well to imply them in our lives; I guess that is what the author intended to do for the younger audience.

Some of the precepts in the book that I really loved are:

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  —Dr. Wayne Dyer

“Your deeds are your monuments.”—Inscription on an Egyptian tomb

"What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful." —Sappho

"Don't try too hard to be cool. It always shows, and that's uncool.” —Amos Conti

"Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can." —John Wesley’s Rule 


I could relate to August Pullman: Perhaps why I loved the book so much was that I could have a certain sense of relatability with the central character’s trials; though mine wasn’t as extreme. In August’s story, I could find traces of my childhood: being unusually tall all through my school life, I too was often started and pointed at, was ridiculed many a time and could sense people laughing behind my back because of my excessive height. There were moments when I too wished I could have a normal height so that people would stop staring at me. When August says “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out” I was reminded of my school days and could connect to it instantly.


Conclusion:




Wonder is a story for a lifetime. It is the best book that I have read in a very long time. I can’t recall the last time when I was so touched and was compelled to think about the way I look at certain things in my life by a book.

Wonder truly is a marvelous story that explores some uncomfortable truths about how we humans behave and deftly touches on how we should behave. It has a lot of heart and should be read by everyone. It’s touching, moving, uplifting, inspiring, thought-provokingly beautiful and all very real and genuine. You would be doing yourselves gross injustice if you miss this one out. Read it. It will definitely impact your life in ways you can’t possibly imagine.



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