I'm not a fan of "philosophy" books that pass themselves off as fiction. Usually they're books with political or religious liens that try to be general fiction, as though someone wouldn't notice the pink elephant in the middle of the story. The Alchemist comes to mind, using what I considered New Age-like terms to reveal religious philosophy. A lot of people read Paolo Coelho's novel — it was on the bestseller list for ages — so perhaps I'm in the minority as to perceiving a certain shallowness to the novel.
Thankfully, The Shack did not have that problem. Author William P. Young very clearly discussed concepts of Christianity using familiar terms. And he did a clever job. He used situations and characters that allowed a full discussion of the subject, and threw in some unexpected characters and conversations.
For those who wish to challenge their ideas of faith and religion regarding Christianity, this is an excellent book to read. It's a tad heretical, but I like that kind of thing: challenges either reaffirm my ideas or change them, and I don't mind "being wrong." This is the kind of book you'll share with someone just to get the conversation started.
For those who do not wish to have that conversation, read it anyway, just to see if it makes you think. You don't even have to share the faith of the writer. If you have any religious ideology at all, this will engage you. The writer clearly meant to do just that, and in that, he succeeded.
My issue with it was the presentation. Very few people can pull off the "fake real" story. I'm sorry that Young is not one of those people. I know it is labeled very clearly as "fiction" on the back cover of the book, so one should not get too confused. However, the author attempted to mix a little reality in there, just happening to name one of the main characters after himself — then happened to have that character play an important role. Coupled with "this happened to a friend of mine" in the introduction, the author created a false premise that, as a reader, I found annoying.
The story is simple: Mack has a tragedy in his life. The author is kind enough to write it out in lurid detail, which was compelling and very disturbing. It was the best written part of the book, and thinking that made me feel ghastly and dirty. It felt inappropriate for me, in context. Give me innuendo, gloss over the tough parts and leave me with a modicum of peace. (I suppose the author should feel good about eliciting this kind of response from a reader about his storytelling, but I assure you, this is not a compliment. Write a thriller next time, Young.)
After his tragedy, he receives something unexpected that elicits an unexpected response: it gets his attention and gets him moving. He follows his instincts and finds himself in — the most likely place, alas. Throughout the book, Young mixes pleasant surprises with the obvious.
However, once the story gets going, it's enjoyable. I found it easy to invoke my willful suspension of disbelief and go for the ride. Unfortunately, once the story cascaded toward conclusion, the same niggling flaws from the beginning dislodged me from my reading "happy place" and made me read more critically than I would have preferred to do. It was not a deal-breaker, but it was a bit distracting.
Another issue I had was with the last few pages of the book. After the story ended, the coda lists all of the ways people can help promote the book. While ingenious from a marketing standpoint, it really ruined the book's finale for me. Right after reading a good ending, the next page is a commercial capitalizing on the story's power. Ouch.
A final warning: do not read the book jacket or back cover if you want the story to unfold with a modicum of mystery.