Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

I have to admit that when Jackie (Farm Lane Books Blog) chose Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) for our Riverside Readers book group, I was a little dubious (sorry Jackie!). Firstly, it involved a mouse called Algernon (“silly name for a mouse” I thought), and the copy that Jackie showed us had a rather spooky sci-fi looking cover with a maze on it. I can’t help it, I’m a book cover snob.

Little did I expect to completely fall in love with it…

Flowers for Algernon is the story of a 32 year old man – Charley Gordon, who is given an operation to correct his mental disability and allow him to learn. The experiment has been tested on a mouse called Algernon, who has become something of a super-mouse with an ability to figure out complex puzzles (hence the maze on the cover). At the start of the book Charley works as a cleaner in a bakery and has an IQ of 68. We read the book in the form of ‘progress reports’ which are written by Charley himself, so the reader is instantly given a special insight into his perspective on the situation. His initial reports are at first childlike, and confused, but develop as the experiment affects him. I won’t go into too much detail on the storyline, but I will say that the reader goes on a remarkable journey with Charley, exploring the relationships he has before and after the change, his disjointed family background and the experiences he has of the world as he develops. The actual timeframe that the book covers is very short (less than a year) but it feels like a lifetime in terms of the discoveries and changes that Charley undergoes.

I don’t know about you, but reading a synopsis of this book wouldn’t have made me want to read it, but I am so pleased that I did. The writing style was fluid and engaging (I was completely absorbed for 2 days), the characters incredibly realistic and the idea once I’d started reading was so compelling that I found myself believing that this was a real person and a real experiment. It’s also an incredibly moving book, and really makes you switch on to the ideas expressed in a skillful way (i.e. without being over dramatic or sickly-sweet). At times I loved Charley, and felt deep empathy and at others I was disappointed in him and upset, and I responded to him as a real human rather than a creation.

The book posed all sorts of questions for me like; Was he better off before or after? How does intelligence define personality? Was it worth it? Was it a moral experiment? As a book group choice it provided excellent fodder for discussion and I think that it would appeal to a wide spectrum of people, who might not think to pick it up. I would seriously urge you to get a copy!

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?
Have you read any books that surprised you?

Want another opinion? Read my other book group members thoughts. A link to Savidge Reads and Farm Lane Books Blog is here, and Kimbofo of Reading Matters has also written a review.

Interested in the Riverside Reader’s London-based group? Click here to find out more.

19 responses to “Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

  1. I have indeed read Flowers for Algernon hahaha. Like you I admit freely I didnt think this book would work for me, and then I too fell in love with it. Books rarely make me weep and this one did, it also made me think very hard… maybe thats where my migraines coming from!!!

  2. I’ve been wanting to read this book since last year. I’m glad Jackie and your book group has reminded me about it (and liked it!) I hope to pick it up soon.

  3. This is a great review. It’s such a great book, isn’t it? I was absorbed by it too and read it in about the same space of time as you, I think. To be honest, I really didn’t want to put it down, because I was so caught up in Charlie’s dramas. I wonder what Daniel Keyes other book is like?

    • I loved your review also – I was very impressed with this book and completely surprised. I didn’t know he’d written another one, but I’ll have to look out for it!

  4. I will have to look out Keyes’ other book too for I loved Flowers … It was one of the most affecting books I have ever read. Great review.

  5. I read a chapter or two in school several years ago. I recall not being particularly impressed, but I’ve heard enough readers recommend it since then that I suspect my dislike might have just been related to how we studied the chapters. I suppose I’ll just have to give it another shot. Given the praise, I suspect I might enjoy it after all.

    • I wonder if it was because you read it in school? Also, the first few chapters are a bit hard work because of the odd writing style. I think you should consider revisiting 🙂

  6. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this book, despite your initial thoughts. I love the fact that we are made to read books that we would otherwise avoid at the book group and hope we find many more hidden gems in the next few months.

  7. The thing I loved most about it was how it elicited emotions in the simplest of ways. There was nothing truly fantastic that happened in the book, and yet it managed to make me feel much more than a majority of books I’ve previously read.
    I’m working on an essay about whether the pain Charlie experienced is worth it (to which my answer is yes) and if you have anything to comment about on the subject, please say so! The help would be appreciated.

    • Hello Davie, I would agree with you – the bright spark in his life was worth the pain. I think it’s a bit patronising to think that people are better off ignorant, and I don’t think he was really very happy at all – his family life was horrible and he was sort of left wondering which was rather painful. I suppose it’s the old thing about Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge. Although knowledge brings pain it also brings wonderful joy and understanding. Good luck with your essay!

  8. Pingback: Bookie Mee | Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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  10. Virginie Menzildjian

    Ah Ah !! I am a book cover snob too !!!!!Last week I ordered an old second hand book because it was the only way to get it but the cover is so…. yuk……ugly and bad taste and cheap !!!!
    Well, it is really old , plus it is a kind of romantic thriller, you can imagine how it looks.

    I think English or American book covers are much more beautiful than French ones(well except the one I was just writing about ;-D)….I just love English books so much.
    I have never read this book(Flowers) but have found great reviews about it.It has become a modern classic I reckon…..
    I will have to buy it.

  11. Pingback: Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes – Farm Lane Books Blog

  12. Pingback: Flowers for Algernon questions what it means to be intelligent « Bibliojunkie

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