Something is wrong with Charlie, the sixteen year old boy who narrates this story through letters written to an unspecified “friend.” He is subject to dramatic mood swings, has trouble with the art of truthtelling, and lacks social grace. The suspense that drives the story is the uncertainty over whether Charlie’s fragility will survive the onslaught of over-the-top adolescent hazards. Nothing is spared; there is drinking, violence, drugs, smoking, abuse, homosexuality, fast-driving, and explicit sex. Ironically, it is the realization of his dream of the tenderness of true love that pushes him over the brink, forcing him to finally come to terms with events in his early childhood that damaged him.
This novel has been compared to Catcher in the Rye. It is similar in that it too is a book that belongs to young people, in that it expresses the drive for a generational truth in still forming young minds. But Charlie is not as angry as Holden Caulfield. Charlie has more reason to complain and be vengeful but he is too devoted to the principal of love. And this is why he is able to face his demons and come to the conclusion that he cannot change his past, but he can make a better future for himself.
The explicit content in this book has made this a controversial book. It has been banned by adults, and teenagers have named it as the best book they have read–a book that has changed their lives and made them interested in reading. As an adult who finds books for kids, I found the content almost relentlessy disturbing–did they have to smoke too?–but I realize the content represents the minefield that a broken Charlie must navigate, and thus highlights both his strengths and his undeserved baggage. Teenagers brought this book into my classroom. Most of my students seem to know about this book, and some chose not to read it. That seems appropriate. It is their book, let them choose.