The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Written by: Stephen Chbosky
Synopsis: Charlie is a freshman. And while he's not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it. Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But Charlie can't stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.
I only decided to read this book because of how much I loved the film (I know, shock, horror, sacrilige!). I had always heard praise for it, and I even recommended it to my mum when she was looking for a book to buy my sister (who loved it as well) but I never felt a desire to read it, or to even know much about it. I knew it was a coming of age story, that it was about a "wallflower" and that it was a little darker than your typical teenage story, but still, it never pulled me in. And now that I've seen the film (which I loved) and read the book...well, I could have gone without reading the book. That isn't to say the book is bad, just that I found the film to be far, far better. I'll get into more of that in my review of the film, so forget about that for the moment and I'll discuss the book beloved seemingly by everyone.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a fairly typical coming of age story told in the epistolary style. Each "chapter" is a letter from Charlie, the protagonist, to an unnamed friend. Because the recipient doesn't know Charlie or any of the people involved (though perhaps could, if the right details were provided) the letters are unabashedly personal and read more like a journal, but unlike a journal these "can't be found". Which is pretty clever if you ask me. Especially considering Charlie discusses love, and friends, and drinking, and taking drugs, and masturbation, and depression and homosexuality and a bunch of other things 15 year olds don't typically wish to discuss with their parents.
Throughout the book Charlie writes essays for his English teacher about the books he's given, and at time it feels like the letters are another form of essay. He's always present, but also always slightly removed from it all, as though he's discussing his life as if it were a book he'd read, or a film he'd watched. It's an interesting element of the book, but also links into my biggest problem, Charlie himself. Charlie experienced some pretty intense emotional trauma early in life, and it's something that continually haunts him and threatens to tear his life apart. Because of this trauma, Charlie isn't a normal boy. He's quiet, reserved, emotional (OMG SO MANY TEARS) and it seems that the events of his youth stunted his mental and emotional self. This is where my problem is, because of the emotional turbulence (I guess?) he doesn't seem like a 15 year old. The writing style and comprehension of this supposedly 15 year seems much closer, in my opinion, to that of a 10 year old. Furthermore, he seems to have absolutely no self-awareness, no filter system and a very surgical way of looking at life. He reminded me a lot of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, not so obviously autistic, but also not a normal* (though traumatised) 15 year old. It just didn't gel for me, especially when a good part of the book involves his English teacher giving him A's and encouraging him to do his own reading and essay writing at home and complimenting him on his natural writing talent. That just didn't come across to me in the letters, they were clumsy, and child-like and not at all like the short stories or essays my advanced English class were writing at his age. I do think that this was the fault of Stephen Chbosky not knowing quite how to write a 15 year old character who was supposed to be naive and troubled. Maybe he was too old at the time of writing the book (he was 29 when it was published), or maybe it's because his education is in filmic writing but whatever the reason, the character of Charlie just doesn't sit right for me.
Okay, now that I've gotten past my major issue with the novel I can focus more on the rest of the book, and the bits that did work. As I said before, it's a fairly typical coming of age tale. Charlie has to navigate through his first of year of high school, which is hard enough already, while still coming to terms with the death of his best friend Michael and dealing with puberty and making new friends and experiencing the highs and lows of the dating world. It's turbulent, cringe-worthy at times, and completely relateable. I mean, I know I had life wayyyyyy easier than poor Charlie (or any of the characters to be honest) but I still get the anxiety, fear and apprehension that comes with trying to work out that difficult path between child- and adult-hood. As he begins to become friends with a group of seniors it becomes clear that Charlie isn't the only person to suffer great loss or trauma and it affected them all deeply and shaped their characters, but it seems to shake Charlie's world to an extent that he can't move past. From early on in the book we're aware that Charlie's best friend committed suicide the year before, and that he struggled a great deal after the death of his aunt, but there are greater depths that are revealed as the book continues, and perhaps it wasn't so much these particular events but something about Charlie which made these events so monumental and hard to get past. In the final letter we find the missing puzzle piece, and he, Charlie, begins to make more sense.
While Charlie is clearly the focus of the novel, his new best friends Sam and Patrick are fascinating in their own particular ways. Sam, the victim of sexual abuse as a child, is always falling in love with the wrong guys, is loud and gregarious, while also battling with crippling self-esteem issues. Her step-brother Patrick is outgoing and the life of the party, but he's also secretly dating and in love with the star quarterback who refuses to come out of the closet. It's for Patrick I feel for the most, being different and being in love are both hard enough in high school, but to have to hide your reason for happiness because that person is ashamed and afraid? I don't even know how you do that, it would be earth shattering, every single day. The other smaller characters, Mary Elizabeth, Alice, Bob, Bill; they all have their moments in the sun, and they all play an extremely important role in helping Charlie develop and mature both as a teenager and as someone struggling with a dark past. It's the camaraderie of this group of misfits and wallflowers that makes the book interesting and heart warming, even though I have a hard time accepting that a group of seniors would openly accept a freshman into their permanent circle of friends, especially one who seems so much younger than 15. However, to be fair, the group does seem to have a certain level of protective older brother/sister - younger brother feelings, especially since Charlie is able to open to these older brothers and sisters in a way he could never truly open up to his own brother and sister.
This book covers a tumultuous year filled with fun and and risk-taking and lows and emotional breakdowns and foot-in-mouth-moments, and it does a lot of this really well. But the clumsy first person narration (though I loved the letters themselves) really made it hard for me to love this book, or to really feel any of the moments which were supposed to rock me to my core. I really, really, really wanted to love this book, and while I admire what Stephen Chbosky was trying to do, and there are some great parts to it, I'm just feeling incredibly disappointed.
*I don't like to use the word normal there, but I'm not sure how else to convey it. Sorry guys.