The book deals with a myriad of issues faced by teens: first dates, family dramas, friendship, sex, drugs, love, homosexuality. Charlie is an endearing character who is both incredibly smart and naive at the same time. The characters in the story are dysfunctional and flawed, which I think makes them very relatable. The subject matter of the book was somewhat heavy - issues of suicide, rape, abuse, abortion, incest, some fairly hardcore drug use, mental illness were all present - but I feel like it is probably a fairly accurate description of what teenagers encounter today, unfortunately. The book had some poignant quotes, which now appear on E-cards and Pinterest, but the truth is I still don't know how I feel about this book.
On one hand, I gave it 3 stars because I really did enjoyed reading the book. It was a quick read - I read it in an afternoon. There were certainly things that I could relate to in the story - namely the family dramas and self-esteem issues experienced by the female characters. The letter writing structure was unique and I liked how it was personal and unrestricted. The reader was privy to Charlie's unfiltered stream of consciousness, which can be absent in a more straight-forward narrative. It kills me that we never find out who "Dear Friend" is or if they ever receive the letters Charlie writes.
However, the book did have some flaws. Charlie for one was so naive at times that it was hard to believe he was 15 years old. He came across as somewhat whiny and was somewhat of a cry baby. I often found myself wondering if maybe he wasn't Autistic because of his inability to read the emotions and social situations going on around him. Another pet peeve was that throughout the book Charlie writes about how his English teacher, Bill, gives him additional books to read and has him write essays. Charlie often says that Bill says he is getting to be a better writer with each new assignment, however this improvement is not reflected in Charlie's letter writing...
The books Bill has him read are meant I think to teach Charlie lessons, but it doesn't appear that Charlie picks up any new insights. His growth as a character is somewhat limited and stifled. Throughout the book, Charlie struggles to "participate" in the events around him, rather than simply sit back and observe. I can relate to this. My childhood made me grow up much faster than I was supposed to, and I can think back on several times in high school when I watched my friends do some frankly stupid things, but wishing at the same time that I was able to live in the moment like them. I often found myself observing rather than participating. There are some moments in the book when Charlie was able to let go and fully embrace the moment, but they were fleeting and few and far between. Again, I had hoped that his character would grow more than it did.
At times I found myself overwhelmed with the number of issues "dealt with" in the book. I put "dealt with" in quotes because while the characters encountered these issues, I feel like many of these issues were not analyzed or address on any meaningful level. Often they were simply events that happened in the story. This is where I think that having the story told through Charlie's letter writing might have been a hinderance. I found that when heavy issues came up, Charlie's own character flaws prevented him from providing any real insight into these issues. Sometimes I felt that the issues were included simply to include them - almost for shock value. It's terrible to say, but maybe when this book was first published all of this would have been more shocking, but today I feel like we are all so much more cynical and jaded and it felt more superfluous rather than shocking. I think many of the events in the story would have been more meaningful if there were fewer and if the author had Charlie take more time to explore his feelings and the feelings of the other characters about the experience.
I think all of us can relate to this story in some way and I definitely think that this book is worth the read. It will probably be more meaningful to an actual teenager (as opposed to someone like me, who is in their 20's), but anyone who experienced high school can probably getting something out of it.