And I'm just sorry I waited so long to read this book. I'd skipped over it on sale a couple times, because the movie left me feeing melancholy. Despite the ending, which I remembered as depressing, I felt buoyant after reading this book: there's something about finishing something truly spectacular that leaves me feeling all warm inside.
I'm not going to use retarded to describe Charlie, but I am going to point out that it was how he was described in this book. His specific condition is never really gone into, and I want to say it's never really pinpointed. (It may have been, but it was never the point of the novel, or important enough to make a huge deal about the specifics, so I may just not remember.) Charlie even goes to a school for adult learning - and the class mentions it's for retarded people. It's in the title.
I wrote a long essay about this, and about how it was a different time, and the author probably never thought that 'retarded' would be a controversial word. It seems callous at first glance, but all the characters who have mental disabilities are all treated with respect. Of course, we get the story thought Charlie's journals - labelled progress reports - and we get into his head the most. There's a brief scene with his classmates, and I found them all to be sweet: they welcome Charlie and are happy to see them, but they never get to be fully realized characters.
Charlie is, however, and he goes though an experiment - a surgical procedure, at the very least - that gives him a much higher IQ. He wasn't even the smartest person in the program, but he was the most motivated, and they wanted that desire to learn, to improve in their subject. And Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss make it clear that he is a subject; Strauss seems to become fond of Charlie than Nemur does, and treats him more like a person and less like a subject, but still...
How can he not be? They are dependent on the results of this program, Nemur in particular, and there's not getting around the fact that they experimented on him. It's an unavoidable fact, especially when he becomes fully aware of what has been done to him. Still, Charlie is kind, complex, and utterly sympathetic. When he starts out, he is blissfully unaware of how people mock him, happy to be liked. When he becomes more aware, he plumbs his memories, and they are heartbreaking. He starts to see how he was mocked, and he becomes angry.
I pointed it out in my update, and I will point it out again here: it's very important to me that he says he was a person before the operation. He starts to see how Nemur and Strauss - Nemur in particular, once again - treats him as if he had been built by them, and wasn't a person before his operation. He was, he says, multiple times. However, this could be a lazy writerly trick: Keyes could have just written it, and hoped that the readers would believe it to be true. He did not. Charlie was written as a complex person even before he had to claim he was a person, from the moment he was born.
But Keyes isn't just satisfied with writing something brilliant. No, he had to make it compulsively readable as well. Once I started this, I found myself resentful of anything that would get in the way of me finishing. This is a slight novel in word count, especially when compared with some of the bricks that have come out in recent times. And yet, I wouldn't add a word more: Keyes says what he needs to say in the amount of time it took him to tell his story. He neither rushes, nor drags anything out.
I'm trying to think of a novel I've read that I'd classify as more perfect than this - and I can't really think of one. I do believe this is the most perfect novel I've read to ate.
I can see I'll be rereading this, and if anyone wants to with me, let me know. I'm so up for a reread.