Part of me really wishes I had read this when I was younger, and part of me is glad I read it now.
It's a great story - very simple, but bringing up a host of different issues.
Charlie, is a mentally retarded adult, 32 years old, and he becomes the subject of an experiment by a local area university trying to increase intelligence with the use of surgery and chemicals (hormones, enzymes). It works great on a mouse called Algernon, so they go ahead and test on an adult.
The most heart breaking part of the story was that of Charlie - who has an IQ of 68, particularly as he starts to get smarter and realize how he has been treated in the past. If this book isn't a glaring reminder of how the mentally handicapped have been (and still are) abused, neglected, and humiliated for the amusement of others, I don't know what is. This book makes you think about the treatment and attitudes towards the mentally handicapped and I can't imagine anyone not thinking about how they have treated others after seeing how Charlie is treated, how he sees others treated when he's "smart" and how he feels. Also heart breaking is Charlie's decline at the end, where he remembers being "smart" and has to deal with the pity of others and the tortured relationships everyone endures thanks to his rise and decline.
The author keeps the science toned down - just giving generalities (they don't talk about what kind of surgery or where in the brain), but the idea that because it works on one mouse (they tried the experiment on many mice, and apparently Algernon had the best results because of his "motivation") they would get the go-ahead to try it on a person is just outrageous. I remember the book is written in the 50's and stringent requirements for animal and human experimentation were not in place back then. It's just shocking to remember how far we have come and how protected and regulated experiments have become.
I work in an experimental field in the new millennium and rogue experimentation did happen in the past, particularly on the indigent, mentally handicapped, and minorities who didn't have a say, and I just liked that the book reminded me of that, unfortunately I kept focusing on niggling details (especially with regards to Algernon, his lifespan/age/treatment/etc) instead of enjoying the whole of the book.
There are a lot of themes in the book, and I did enjoy it, and I think it's something that everyone should read.