We Love You, Charlie Freeman is about a black family that moves into a research institute to teach a chimp sign language. Throughout their stay, the institute’s history of eugenics experiments involving black people comes to light, and the main character, a teenage girl named Charlotte, starts to have the suspicion that history is repeating itself.
I find monkeys to be inherently unlikeable characters – don’t ask me why – and Charlie Freeman, the chimp in this novel, sort of proves my point. He’s a jerk. (On the subject of how nobody wants to read an adult novel about a chimp, here is my favorite review of this book on Goodreads so far.) But it turns out the novel isn’t really about him.
Nor is it really about Charlotte, who is a likable and smart teenager, but ultimately forgettable. The character I will remember from this novel is Charlotte’s mother, who was perplexing. The Freeman family was involved in the experiment at the mother’s insistence, and her relationship with Charlie quickly becomes sickeningly close. I had trouble grasping why the mother did what she did throughout much of the novel, but the novel is peppered with little tidbits about her that left me wanting more. She used black sign language out of principle. She was aspiring for career success and saw the experiment with Charlie as a way to prove her own importance. I was intrigued by her, but by the end the reader sees her the way her family sees her: through a lens of confused horror.
Still, Greenidge covers a lot of ground: eugenics, the way the scientific community can slant with prejudice, the racist depiction of black people as apes, and the limits of language when it comes to race. There is a lot to unpack here, which is why I was confused by how rushed it all felt. Like with the mother’s characterization, I wish she had spent more time going in depth about the experiments, and the way they reverberate into the culture. She goes there, but doesn’t always deliver.
Overall, though, it’s a solid debut effort. I will be watching to see what Kaitlyn Greenidge writes next.