Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

If you haven’t heard of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (no relation as far as I know to Marian Keyes) then don’t worry as neither had I. However since it became the latest choice for book group after Jackie’s choosing I found out that actually this is rather a cult novel. First published as a short story in 1959 and then rewritten in novel form becoming and award winning classic, such a classic infact it has been turned into a film and even a musical in the late 1970’s starring Michael Crawford. Who knew, the things you learn. What about the book though, would this work for me as it does come under the science fiction umbrella?

The Algernon in ‘Flowers for Algernon’ is actually a mouse and though isn’t the main character is certainly pivotal to the plot. This is no ordinary mouse as Algernon has undergone some experimental surgery that means he is a super intelligent mouse. It is from this successful operation that the people and researchers at Beekman have decided to try this out on a human and through this we meet our narrator Charlie Gordon a 32 year old cleaner in a bakery with an IQ of 68 who is mentally disabled. It is Charlie’s diaries or ‘progress reports’ from just before the operation and its effects afterwards that we read as the story unfolds.

I have to admit that when I started reading this book and knowing it was science fiction I just didn’t think this would be a book for me. It didn’t help that the first part of the book is written phonetically as Charlie cant spell. I was wrong though as after getting used to Charlie’s initial bad grammar and spelling (which does pass) and following his journey as he changed and saw the world change around him I was gripped. There were two reasons for this. The first was reading his personal history how his parents couldn’t cope, how his sister hated him and how people picked on him, something he hadn’t realised before his level of intelligence was altered and makes for quite heart breaking reading and looks at the way people with mental disabilities are treated in some cases. There is also quite a twist in the tale as Algernon starts to behave oddly with wild mood swings and his intelligence deteriorates, what will happen to them both?  

It’s such a though provoking read that I am sure book group will have been filled with fascinating discussion (I am posting quite a bit ahead at the moment so we haven’t met as I type). What will we make of the two women who come into Charlie’s life, his teacher Alice and his crazy fabulous neighbour Fay, and their treatment of him? What was Keyes trying to say in this book, and where did the inspiration come from? Do we all feel we have been able to gain additional insight into what it is like to have learning and mental disabilities? I know I feel like I have made to think about the subject more than any other book has made me do. What about the ending, did anyone else cry a bit… I shall say no more about it (and don’t anyone else give anything away); they could be happy or sad tears you will have to read the book to find out.

It is books like this, which I know had I seen this in the book shop I would have not read, that show why book groups can be so great. Has it changed my not too high opinion of science fiction? Yes in a way, I have realised now its not that I don’t like science fiction (though no Star Wars or Trek on any account) it’s more that I am daunted by it. If I can find more science fiction that hits me like this I can see myself becoming much more of a fan of the genre.

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29 Comments

Filed under Book Group, Books of 2009, Daniel Keyes, Review

29 responses to “Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

  1. I loved this book and cried my eyes out.

    It has so many interesting things to say about the human condition, emotional intelligence and its relation to IQ. Also it tackles the purposes of scientific research and that you need failure so the next guy knows where to concentrate. I was amazed that it was published in 1966, it feels so contemporary.

    • We admitted that out of eight of us last night five of us cried and a few of us more than once, its just too much.

      It rasises some very interesting questions about IQ and EQ. It also makes you look at mental disability in a really different way.

  2. I’ve heard of this book, but I have no idea where. It is driving me mad trying to figure it out. Was it made into a movie? I’m going to have to do some digging. Anyway, I’m glad that despite your dislike of Science Fiction, you enjoyed this book. That is always like finding a hidden treasure!

    • It was made into a movie as I mentioned at the beginning hahaha and a musical. Skim reading Sandy shame on you hee hee.

      This is definately a hidden gem of a book. I would recommend this to everyone.

  3. novelinsights

    Oh I thought Fay was fabulous too, a bit like Holly Golightly? Sort of classy but trashy all at the same time. Great review. x

  4. chasing bawa

    This title has been floating around in my consciousness for many years but I have yet to read it. Somehow I always thought it was a fantasy/historical/war book (!?) You know you’ve written a great review when you’ve persuaded your readers that they want to read it!

    • It has an image of being a book that it isnt if that makes sense. I will say though when it was published itw as possibly seen as being more Science fiction that I think it would be now. People would probably pop it in the ‘speculative’ box! I do hope people buy this as it is wonderful.

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  6. I read the short story version of this in sixth grade, and got the novel shortly thereafter – I liked it but never reread. I should really read it again; I bet it would be even more interesting now that I’m a grown-up.

    • We were discussing the fact it had been a short story as one of our members Kim had read the short story and so we learnt even more about the books history. I would like to try the short sometime to see how they differ.

  7. farmlanebooks

    I am really pleased that I altered your attitude to science fiction by encouraging you to read this book. I have a few science fiction books lined up for the coming months, so hopefully I’ll be able to recommend some more to you soon.

    • I think the book altered my attitude, though I wouldnt say its changed my opinion of sci fi altogether. I am glad you chose something a bit different, even if you did want fisticuffs hahaha! I am always game to try books that I wouldnt normally try.

      Though I would recommend that anyone who doubts they like science fiction should give this a try, I would add that in the context of now it doesnt seem so science fictional but back then it must have been very forward thinking. I might try some more sci fi at some point, nothing Star Trek or Star Wars though.

  8. Sasha

    I read this book when I was about nine–my mother was a voracious reader (I blame her for what I am now). I remember I cried. I remember I wanted to hug Charlie. I remember how cool it was that a writer could write this way. I remember I never wanted to have a pet mouse. Or a hamster.

    • I was actually saying last night how much I loved my hamster and wanted another one. Novel Insights said she didnt like her pet mouse as it was rubbish and wee’d a lot. It didnt make any of us want mice it has to be said.

      I agree with everything it made you want to do… it made me want to do just the same.

  9. Hi, Simon! I have always been curious about this book. I also feel the same way for cult sci-fi classics such as A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Dispossessed, and The Forever War. I guess I’m not a big fan of sci-fi.

  10. We read this in English class in the eighth grade. I don’t remember a single thing about it now. You have me considering a re-read.

  11. Eva

    I’d heard of this book, but somehow I didn’t realise it was sci-fi. lol I’ve never really warmed up to that genre either (whereas fantasy and I have always been tight), but I’m TRYING to give it more chances. I did read some wonderful sci-fi short stories earlier this year for a mini-challenge. They were all available for free online, and I discussed them all w/ links in one big post. So maybe give some of them a go?

  12. I’m still trying to get my head around how you would turn this book into a musical! Does the mouse sing and dance? Does Charlie do a few interesting moves in a maze? I mean the mind boggles. Hehehe.

    It’s such a great book, though, isn’t it? I’ve decided to give it a five-star rating as I could easily imagine re-reading it at some point and giving copies to people who think sci-fi isn’t for them.

    • Hahahaha I would have loved for us all to have been able to have gone and seen the musical after… maybe book group could put an am-dram version on hahaha, oh dear that thought has made me giggle slightly too much.

      It is a wonderful book and agree its a book that could make people read sci-fi who might not normally. The Handmaid’s Tale is another book that I would do this with as well and thats a book that has stayed with me long after the final page has turned, which I think will happen with this book too.

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