The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
Disclosure: This is a book that I have read five times, now, but have yet to review. The first three times I read it were in the pre-blogging days, so naturally I could not have posted any thoughts about it. The fourth time, I wrote a brief comment but could not bring myself to write anything constructive. This time, I set out to read the book with the intent of reviewing it.
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
Fifteen-year-old Charlie is a wallflower. Like a wallflower, there is something strangely beautiful about him. He is silent but observant; shy but determined to please; introverted but filled with love and compassion. His story starts in August, 1991, just as he is about to begin his first year of high school, and it ends almost exactly one year later. He has lost someone close to him and is clearly confused about how to deal with his feelings about this loss (amongst the other complicated growing pains he experiences); so, he decides to begin writing letters to a stranger – someone who he once overheard a mutual friend talking about. The recipient of Charlie’s letters is never disclosed – we do not know his/her name or age, his/her profession or relationship to the people in the story, just that s/he is considered trustworthy and addressed by Charlie as “Dear Friend.” This friend becomes the unwitting conduit for Charlie’s coming-of-age. In this year of his life, he builds and compromises friendships; he is exposed for the first time to some of the darker elements of life; he learns to drive and to dance; he goes to parties and reads books. Most importantly, though, Charlie becomes Charlie. He blossoms from a wallflower into a “participant” – and he learns how to feel infinite.
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
Since the entire book is comprised of letters written by one character, to one person, it would be easy to question the narrator’s reliability and to wonder about the development or accurate representation of the other characters involved. Charlie, however, seems to have only one major fault, and that is honesty (as when he is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room and doesn’t kiss his girlfriend). While Charlie certainly seems to have mental issues – possibly a mild form of schizophrenia (many other reviews seem to think he is Autistic, but I would disagree) – he never comes across as the type to mislead his audience, particularly as the audience is, for all intents and purposes, just one person, his “Dear Friend” and the only one in whom Charlie confides everything. The narrator’s reliability being established, then, allows the reader to believe Charlie’s story and to watch as he grows through experience and heals through memory, acceptance, and forgiveness. While other characters in the book, including Charlie’s family and friends, and his favorite teacher, Bill, do not evolve as much as Charlie, they are, however, natural characters, believable in every way. The situations these people find themselves in, from first loves and broken romances, to family holidays and personal tragedies, are written with a realistic passion, as one who is watching and engaged in the drama but who has nothing to gain from sensationalism would write them. This makes the events, though not experienced by each of us, relevant to all, because they are facts of life. In the end, these characters are just people and these people are just living.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
At one point in the story, Charlie’s teacher, Bill, tells him that some books are “very easy to read but very hard to ‘read well.’” This book just happens to fit that mold – its language is simple and straightforward, but it is littered with sub-context and deeper elements which are introduced at the start of the story, nursed throughout, then, finally, come to fruition at the end.
The novel is structured in a one-way epistolary format. It is almost a diary, except that each entry is a letter to an unknown stranger, and that stranger never responds. Because these letters are being sent off to someone who is not expected to reply, and because (we can assume) no copies of the letters are being retained by Charlie, they tend to be much more personal and provocative than even a diary or journal might be (because, subconsciously, we all worry that someone might find our diaries and expose our secrets, or at least confront us with them – which is of particular concern when the writer is a teenager living at home with his parents and siblings). For this reason, because the letters are assumed secret, they are simultaneously simple but revelatory.
While researching other thoughts and opinions on the book, I have found that one of the primary points of contention for many readers is the underdevelopment (so they say) of the main character, Charlie. Throughout the book, we discover that Charlie is considered to be a rather smart individual. He is given extra projects by his English teacher and he regularly receives perfect scores/grades on his schoolwork. Some have wondered, then, why Charlie writes in such a simplistic way. Looking back, though, and reading critically, there are two things to keep in mind: first, that Charlie is considered to be smart for his age; he is at no point called a “genius” or “brilliant” or any other superior term- just smart; second, Charlie himself admits early on to preferring common vocabulary, as opposed to loftier language (which he finds pompous and pointless). In contemporary Young Adult fiction, a trend has developed wherein teenage characters are given the narrative or dialogic voice of Ivy League college graduates. This is, I think, unfair to the readers and, though it might make the characters more interesting and the story more edifying, it does not represent the typical teenage voice. Chbosky, on the other hand, aims to depict an honest teenage writer, one who is not composing essays or communicating with scholars, but who is simply writing letters. These letters allow him to release emotion and, eventually, to reconnect him with some deeply-buried, painful and important memories. His writing allows him to heal – it is simple but poignant and, most of all, it is real.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
This is absolutely a story which tackles many issues, from rape and abortion, to teenage sex, drugs, and suicide. Some readers might find the amount of dramatic material overwhelming or off-putting, but when one compares this story to others which approach teenage life in a similar way, such as Go Ask Alice, it is clear that The Perks of Being a Wallflower aims to be nothing but honest. Charlie is an unconventional narrator and his story is composed in an unconventional way but, ultimately, he is just a confused American teenager trying to find himself in a world that seems to be always changing. Not every one of us will have dealt with all (or any) of these issues, in high school or as adults, but these things do happen and wishing them away –ignoring them- will not change their reality. Charlie, like some readers, does sometimes disengage himself from the more disturbing things that have happened to him, or around him – but the moral of the story is that growing-up means learning to live and learning to live means participating in what goes on around us. Ready or not, life happens – there is good in it and there is bad in it, but the meaning of life is in how we live it; it is whether we choose to navigate our own way or to get lost in the current; to be the wallflower, or the participant.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Coming-of-Age, Family, Friendship, Identity, Sexuality, Abuse, Drugs, Psychology
“Things change. And friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody.”
“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.”
“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
“I really think that everyone should have watercolors, magnetic poetry, and a harmonica.”
“What’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably? I just don’t understand that.”
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
“I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.”
“I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other.”
“Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.”
“Everyone else is either asleep or having sex. I’ve been watching cable television and eating jello.”
“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.”
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”