Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Wonder is about Augie Pullman, a boy born with multiple medical problems that resulted in many surgeries over the course of his childhood to reconstruct his face. Even after all the surgeries, he still looks startling and unusual enough that other children get scared to see him on the street. All of his medical issues kept him out of school for years, but now he’s ready to enter 5th grade at a normal middle school. Wonder tells the story of his integration into his New York prep school, using multiple first-person narrators. It begins with Augie, then his sister Via, then his friends Summer and Jack, then Via’s boyfriend and frenemy.
Wonder is a children’s book, so it’s written at a low level of complexity that makes it appropriate for children, but slightly boring for me. At times, especially in the Augie sections, there was not enough conflict. Though Augie is far from perfect on the outside, he’s nearly so on the inside, and it gets a little grating. For example, it’s hard to believe he’s still so naive and trusting that he’s surprised when people make comments about his face. He also has the perfect family: his parents are sweet and accomodating and even fun, if overprotective, and his sister is kind and loving, if at times understandably resentful. I was most interested in the sections with the other characters who struggled with their role in Augie’s life: his sister Via and his friend Jack. The edge that creeps into Via’s voice in discussing the way her parents would always put her second in the face of Augie’s overwhelming need, and her bitter but informative discussion of her own genetics, are probably the book’s most powerful moments. The teasing and ostracization Augie deals with in middle school seem fairly mild to me, and of course by the end he’s 100% accepted by everyone. The final moral about kindness is true and sweet and inspiring, but does it really take away all of Augie’s pain? The characters are all fairly privileged: Augie’s school is the kind of place Upper East Side mothers have their eyes on when they put un-concieved children on the wait list at prestigious preschools. That privilege may be one of many factors insulating Augie and his friends from a more frank look at difference and its consequences.
Maybe I’m a cynic, but to me Wonder seemed like a Very Special Episode, a Disney movie version of what it’s like to grow up with a disfiguring genetic condition. I sure hope life is really like this for people like Augie, but I kind of doubt it. Like I said, though, it’s a children’s book, so maybe there are limits to the amount of complexity and conflict we expect children to be able to handle. Or maybe we underestimate them.