R.J. Palacio’s debut novel Wonder is billed as the ‘unforgettable, life-affirming’ story of August ‘Auggie’ Pullman, a boy born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a rare congenital disorder involving severe craniofacial deformities. Told from multiple first-person viewpoints including the protagonist’s, the story covers home-schooled Auggie’s fraught entry into an elite Manhattan school at age ten.
The device of the multiple narrators is handled well at the level of voice, but the choice of narrators is symptomatic of the book’s central flaw. We hear from Auggie’s friends, his sister, and even the sister’s boyfriend, and amid these voices one keeps expecting a negative reaction to Auggie, and not just gushing praise; but it never appears – a tremendous missed opportunity. Even a brief chapter from the point of view of Auggie’s mother, who gives up working to care for her son, would have added a much-needed layer. In this atmosphere of unanimous positivity, Wonder lacks conflict; one suspects, to a degree that it will bore the very children at whom it is aimed. This assumes, of course, that it is really aimed at children at all, and not at critics, teachers, and school librarians.
The book moves ponderously toward its clichéd ending, in which after a challenging year, Auggie reaches his fifth-grade graduation, having made lots of friends, and finds himself on the honour roll. At the ceremony, there is a great build-up to a special award. Auggie wins it and everyone is pleased.
But what about his best friend, Jack?
I won’t deny that Auggie has it tough. Burdened by a radical stigma, he starts a new school without any friends. But his family members love him unreservedly, and he has unfettered access to the medical care he has needed and will continue to need as his condition progresses. He has his own room, his own Macintosh computer, an Xbox and a dog. He is very bright and does very well academically.
Jack, for his part, has to share a room with his brother in a rented fifth-floor walk-up with no air conditioning. Jack has everything to lose. Going against his strongly conformist instincts, Jack befriends Auggie, even at the risk of losing all his other friends and being bullied; and he does lose them, and he is bullied. Jack sticks by his decision and emerges as a truly courageous character of outstanding kindness. And yet he is not recognised as having this coveted quality, either by the school authorities or, apparently, by the author who created him. Surely, given the story’s overt moral that one should be ‘a little kinder than is necessary‘, Jack is its real hero.
Moreover, in these placid waters, circled by weak and sanitised antagonists, Auggie’s kindness goes essentially untested. In the end, in a peculiarly American inversion of millennia of Western mythic structure, Auggie is rewarded for not changing, or worse, simply for being the recipient of terrible sacrifices made by others.