Charming as a Verb | College Applications, High School Reputations, and Scary New Love…Oh My!

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Warning: Major spoilers for Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe below!

I remember all too well those days when all I could think about was what college I was going to attend. The future is a scary concept, and for a high schooler, it was terrifying to have to make the decision of where I wanted to spend the next four (and possibly more) years of my life. Lunch-table discussions centered on how many schools we’d applied to. Greetings became: “Have you heard from any schools yet?” And for those of us who wanted to attend a college that was not the one in our town, competitions ensued for who could move the furthest away. These experiences became my senior year of high school, but I was also one of the busiest students in my grade, so I couldn’t even devote my full mind to the looming college-shaped mass on the horizon. I was busy studying for the six AP tests I needed to take, not to mention my duties with the eight clubs of which I was an officer and my attempts to maintain some kind of social life. To sum it all up, senior year of high school was extremely busy and stressful.

But it was also a lot of fun.

Life just feels like it’s suddenly on the express train… It all finally starts to become inescapably real… The dreaded high school finish line.

Ben Philippe, Charming as a Verb

For the characters in Ben Philippe’s Charming as a Verb, senior year is turning out to be less fun and more stressful, especially for the protagonist’s love interest, Corinne. With an uber-organized style and her love of flashcards, Corinne comes across to most students—and teachers—in her high school as “intense,” a reputation that can be harmful when a teacher writes it in a recommendation letter to her top college. In an effort to change this reputation and prove that she has a wild side to her, Corinne blackmails the decidedly charming protagonist, Henri, into helping her. Of course, things don’t turn out how Corinne and Henri expect, but nothing in life ever does. What matters to Corinne—and what happens to be one of the parts I most disliked about this book—is that her reputation changes almost instantly. 

Reputations can be very important in high school, but unless one attends the same college as most of their high school classmates, a high school reputation rarely makes it out of the doors after graduation. However, reputations can be important while one is in high school, as they often affect which friends one makes, which can then affect elements such as happiness and grades. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in how high school reputations were handled in this novel. Henri is shown to be popular from the start, while Corinne seems to be a loner and an outcast. But when Henri brings her to one party, Corinne is suddenly liked and well-known by almost everyone. In my opinion and experience, this isn’t realistic of high school, and it also creates the false idea that Corinne’s studious personality is inadequate and needs to be changed, while her new party personality is how people really should be. This change in Corinne’s character is even more ridiculous when she changes back as soon as the recommendation letter is rewritten. At this point, the plot shifts its focus, and other things become more important, namely Henri’s misadventures in applying to college.

I want to say I would never con someone into trusting me, into liking me. But I do that, don’t I? That’s what I do all the time.

Ben Philippe, Charming as a Verb

As the son of Haitian immigrants, narrator Henri’s one dream for as long as he can remember has been to attend Columbia University. It’s what his dad wants for him, and it’s what Henri thinks he wants for himself. But after Henri’s interview with a Columbia alumnus goes awry, Henri is shaken and afraid that his dream won’t be able to come true. Despite a fantastic trip Corinne arranges for them both to visit McGill College in Montreal, Quebec, Henri decides to take matters into his own hands. When they return to NYC from Montreal, he writes a fake recommendation letter about himself using the identity of Corinne’s mother…who happens to be a dean at Columbia. While Henri is eventually caught and punished, this transgression is shown to be the result of the pressures of applying to college. 

And as mentioned above, there are a lot of pressures when applying to college.

The best part of the novel, in my opinion, was the representation of the excitement and anxiety of senior year of high school. The descriptions of the apprehension that goes along with pressing the “submit” button and waiting for a reply were spot-on and took me straight back to my own experiences with it. While not an entirely universal occurrence, college applications are a part of life that many of us can look back on and say, “Yeah, that was pretty rough.” And Ben Philippe nailed it. 

Although Henri struggles more than most of his peers with the ups and downs of the college application roller coaster, he finally realizes that he doesn’t have to go to his dream school to enjoy the ride that is college. Even though the goal of college applications is to find the place that will be your home for the next four years, transferring schools is almost always an option. On my own journey through college websites, essays and resumes, this realization helped me relax just a bit because I knew that even if my decision felt final, it could be changed if necessary. For Henri, the mess he got himself into might just have helped put him on the right path for his future because, as his original Columbia interviewer said, “You’ll end up exactly where you need to be. Things have a way of working out.”

All the children are charming as an adjective, but you’re as charming as a verb.

Ben Philippe, Charming as a Verb

That interviewer turned out to be right, not only about Henri’s collegiate education, but also about his relationship with Corinne. Things did have a way of working out for both of them, but first, they had to suffer through the trial and error of new love.

And there were a lot of trials.

I always love a good romance, but this one felt a bit underdeveloped to me. It also seemed to move quickly, largely because Henri and Corinne had been going to the same school for several years and never seemed to care much about each other before the events of the book. But after reading about the two of them together, especially in the epilogue, I will admit that I think they work well as a couple. Their different quirks combine to create an enjoyable time, and care and affection were definitely present in their relationship. Just as Henri did, I questioned the choice to begin a new relationship at the end of high school, but they made it work. And when Henri messed things up for Corinne’s mom, Corinne’s reaction felt valid and well-deserved. It may not have been the shining example for a high school love, but really, what two love stories are exactly the same? What mattered to Henri and Corinne was that it worked for them.

Overall, Charming as a Verb was an enjoyable read, but not for the reasons I first thought it would be. I picked up this novel to see how Philippe handled the issue of Corinne’s reputation and to read a fun love story. While neither of these topics were my favorites in this book, I thought Philippe’s portrayal of the anxiety of applying to college was outstanding. The future can be scary, but as Henri and Corinne found out, the road to get there will create charming memories along the way.

PRR Writer, Wendy Waltrip

(Pine Reads Review would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for providing us with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes are taken from an advanced copy and may be subject to change upon final publication.)

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