I really struggled to write this review. Normally I know exactly what I want to say and from what angle I want to take it, but with Wonder… No, see, even now, as I sit here for the third day in a row trying to catch the words, I find I’m at a loss instead. One draft of this review started with how I saw the movie first; how I showed up at the Odeon one day, saw Owen Wilson’s name on the poster and bought a ticket without knowing what it was I was walking in to. Another draft opened simply with a quote from the book: “Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” But neither of them seemed enough. Neither of them give me the right way ‘in’ to tell you how much of an affect this book had on me.
Growing up, my parents and my uncle would shove £20 notes into mine and my cousin’s hands and send us off to the shopping centre to have a fun day out. We would buy make up and stationery (so, so much stationery!) and we would grab a Frappuccino from Starbucks and hang out until my feet hurt. I used to look forward to those days so much. My cousin, you see, is in a wheelchair and when she whizzed through the shops, crowds would part like the red sea! I was never oblivious to the fact that people used to stare but, at that age, I thought it was because they were jealous that they had to wait for the crowds to dissipate naturally, slowly. It was only after seeing a film called The Man Without A Face, in which Mel Gibson stars as a disfigured recluse, that I realised it was because she was in a wheelchair. Okay, that’s a lie. My sister had to actually pause the VCR and point out Mel Gibson’s disfigurement before I saw that half his face was burnt off, and then she had to explain that’s why people stare at my cousin, but the outcome was the same. To me, there was nothing wrong with Mel Gibson’s face. In fact, I’d developed quite a crush on the character! And there wasn’t anything wrong with my cousin either. Perhaps that’s why Wonder had my emotions in a vice so easily. Why it had me invested heart and soul, both in the characters and the story, both the movie and the book. There I was thinking this child was the most adorable thing I had ever seen! How could anyone think he was hideous?
Wonder revolves around August ‘Auggie’ Pullman, a ten-year-old boy born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterised by facial deformities that leads to issues such as breathing problems, cleft palates and hearing loss. After twenty-seven surgeries, Auggie’s face still doesn’t look ‘normal’. He’s still the child that makes other children run away screaming and crying. The story starts when his parents, Nate and Isabel (played by Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts in the movie, the reason that I went in to see it in the first place) decide it’s time for Auggie to stop being home schooled and to enter fifth-grade with all the other children. Cue the emotional rollercoaster that had me in tears of sadness, tears of anger and tears of uncontrollable happiness as Auggie goes from being the ‘freak’ no one wants to associate with to the ‘wonder’ that captures everyone’s hearts.
I admire the way R. J. Palacio has completely nailed the different voices of the individual characters, as perspectives switch from ten-year-olds to teenagers and back again. She starts with Auggie, then moves through his sister, Via, his new school friends, Jack and Summer, Via’s boyfriend, Justin, her ex-best friend, Miranda, and then back to Auggie again. Palacio also skilfully shows the way other characters see and treat Auggie: Julian, a popular boy in school that bullies him and gives him the nickname ‘Darth Sidious’; Julian’s mother, who goes to the extreme length of Photoshopping him out of school photographs and redistributing them; and Isobel and Nate, whose love for their son is, like all good parents, blind and infinite.
What you realise is that every character has loneliness and fear at their very centre which helps you to understand the decisions they make throughout the narrative as well as making them relatable to some extent. Even Auggie, with all his ‘hurdles’ can be related to. But it was Via who provided the perspective I found most intriguing. Where everyone else has to ‘get used to’ Auggie’s face, Via grows up with it. She’s there when he’s first brought home as a baby, expecting him to look one way and realising he doesn’t; she’s there after his surgeries, watching the way his looks change from this way to that; she’s there by his side when he steps out into the big bad world. There’s no doubt that Via loves her brother unconditionally, not entirely able to see why strangers have such disgust and loathing for him, but when she comes back from staying with her grandmother, for the briefest of moments, her eyes are opened to that perspective and she’s filled with guilt because of it.
Despite it being aimed at children, Wonder is a story that needs to be read by EVERYONE! Children, teenagers, adults. It’s the kind of book that prompts us to remember what it’s like to be bullied, to have people tease you or shun you, and also how to rise above it. It reminds us that a small act of kindness will go a long way. It also shows us how to handle situations such as seeing a disabled child. In interviews about the inspiration behind the story, Palacio explains that when she and her children went to get ice cream one day, they sat beside a little girl with a severe facial deformity. Palacio’s three-year-old son had cried out in fear so she immediately left with her children to avoid hurting the little girl’s feelings. She credits this afterwards as a bad move, saying that she should have started a conversation with the little girl and showing her children that there was nothing to be afraid of. This scene actually makes it into the book – so keep an eye out for that.
I also highly recommend the movie. It’s rare for me to say that a book and its film adaptation were equally brilliant, but this is one of those occasions where I will say it and it is true! Very little from the book, I discovered, was left out from the screenplay. A few places had been changed, maybe one or two miniscule details were dropped, but nothing so substantial that it changed the overall story in any way. Even the casting was spot on!
Wonder is, without a doubt, one of the greatest novels that has come out of this decade.