Goodreads: Charming as a Verb
Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.
There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.
Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .
This is a sharply funny and insightful novel about the countless hustles we have to keep from doing the hardest thing: being ourselves.
Charming as a Verb has been on my radar for awhile and I had high hopes. A rom com where the romance begins with one party being blackmailed by the other? Intriguing. Unfortunately, however, the characterization of the protagonist, Henri Haltiwanger, felt incomplete and even a little confusing. This was enough to make the book only a so-so read. Something that’s okay, but generally unremarkable.
The main issue with Henri is that, according to the title, he is supposed to charming. I, in turn, assumed this meant I would be rooting for him. Henri’s introduction, however, establishes him as a liar, one who actually went through the trouble of creating an entire fake business, with its own fake website, email, and T-shirts, in order to con people in NYC to pay him for walking their dogs. The book presents this as kind of cute, just something he had to do in order to earn some cash, because he attends a fancy prep school with rich kids and he needs money, too, right? But, realistically, this deceit is pretty big and possibly even criminal. It does not immediately establish Henri as likable.
As the story progresses, readers learn that Henri is flaky about his commitments, unclear about his intentions with women, and willing to lie in general in order to get what he wants because he figures the system is rigged against him and it’s only fair. He regularly fails to show up to his debate team practices, even though they are relying on him. He has an undefined relationship with a girl who clearly is into him, but whom he is happy to use as a one-night stand. He complains all the time about how hard it is for him to get into Columbia University, even though he goes to a prestigious prep school with a counselor who has inside contacts and pulls strings for him to get a personal interview with a Columbia graduate. In short, Henri is not at all charming. He’s selfish and self-absorbed, and quite unsympathetic when he complains about Columbia, as if he has no idea that the majority of high school students in the U.S. have a zero chance of getting into an Ivy League school, because they don’t attend a high school with a recognizable name and don’t have connections to the people who influence admissions.
This might all be fine, if one considered that Henri is just supposed to be a morally grey character who makes mistakes and maybe just is a really bad friend and boyfriend. But the book repeatedly assures readers that Henri is, yes, charming. That readers should care about him. That they should root for him. But…why? There are a few vague mentions about his love of fashion and sneakers, and his desire to design them. But the sneaker references appear only sporadically, and it’s actually difficult to remember that they are supposed to be Henri’s passion. So the whole “follow your dream” subplot falls flat and fails to make Henri any more likable.
In the end, when Henri makes another huge mistake (read: another criminal lie), he gets off pretty easy and still manages to have his dreams (because this is YA, after all). And this actually feels like a problem. Normally, I would want the character to have a second chance, but the characterization here has not convinced me that Henri truly has a heart of gold and this was just one lapse of judgment. His entire characterization has shown Henri to be dishonest and unreliable, in pursuit only of what will benefit him. It is difficult to know what to think of a book that tells readers the main character is likable and good-hearted, but shows them that he is not.
There’s also a pretty lackluster romance in the book, which the summary might have readers believing is a main point. However, the characters become a couple pretty quickly, with few of the rom com hijinks one might have expected from a sort of enemies-to-lovers romance. Their chemistry is largely absent, with the book simply telling readers about how in love they are, but never convincingly demonstrating that the two are compatible. The romance eventually becomes sidelined, with Henri mainly concerned about getting into Columbia.
The college application process is one aspect of the book I did enjoy, however. It captures the anxiety around applying for colleges, trying to figure out the right things to say at the interview, wondering when the acceptance or rejection notice will come. It’s maybe not as relatable that almost everyone in the book seems to be aiming for (and getting accepted) at Ivy League schools, but they do attend a fancy prep school so I guess it makes sense.
Would I recommend Charming as a Verb? Probably not. But I would be willing to try some of Philippe’s other books.