Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is oddly shaped and a slender 213 pages. It fit so nicely in my hand that I couldn’t think of returning it to the shelf. I know this makes me superficial, but the back promised it was “unique, hilarious and devastating” in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace. How could I not read it?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is written as a series of letters by a fifteen-year-old boy named Charlie. They’re conversational, intimate letters, though the person receiving them doesn’t know Charlie. He begins each letter “Dear friend” and closes with “Love always.” It would be easy to dismiss his style as simplistic, but he’s so earnest and honest I found his voice endearing. His writing isn’t forced, but it may take a few pages before you get the flow of it. The plot meanders as Charlie narrates his freshman year of high school, but it gets credit for not building up to an overhyped prom and prom-related activities for its conclusion.
There is little to say about the plot. Charlie details his freshman year by the day or week depending on whether anything of interest occurs. Since Charlie is telling his stories through letters, he’s very conscious of his audience and takes great pains to not be misunderstood. He has a tendency to overexplain his ways of thinking or feeling. And he has a lot to explain. As the title says: Charlie is a wallflower. He doesn’t do anything. He watches. While this grated on me at times, it’s not a flaw in Chbosky’s writing or a flaw in the story—it’s a flaw in Charlie. Since Charlie acknowledges this flaw and works to overcome it, I’m not going to criticize the book for having an inactive, emotional, narrator. Notice I say emotional, not angsty. If this book were a load of overwrought teenage angst, it wouldn’t be likened to The Catcher in the Rye, it would be The Catcher in the Rye.
I adore Charlie, but it’s the other characters I’m less thrilled about. For the most part, they’re very simplistic. Charlie has a pretty sister that’s mean to boys (except her abusive boyfriend), a perfect footballer of a brother, an old-school father who only cries at the last episode of M*A*S*H, racist grandparents, an overly understanding English teacher, a flamboyantly gay friend (in love with a closeted footballer), a pretty/smart/awesome chick for the standard of all other chicks he’ll ever meet . . . I could go on and you would recognize the cast list to any and every teen show or book. I understand things become clichés because they have a ring of truth, but there needs to be something beyond the cliché. That said, there’s something about Charlie’s naïve and innocent writing voice that makes these tired, stale characters seem new and interesting. It’s almost enough to balance. Almost.
While Charlie doesn’t seem to know much, he sees everything. At the end of the story, when it’s time for him to learn from all he has seen, his new viewpoint feels forced and shaped by the sudden intimation of a trauma he had previously experienced and repressed. This intimation reads much better the second time through because it’s the sort of thing that changes the way you view Charlie. When you know it’s coming, the book is more seamless. (I know this is an unhelpful statement. I’m telling anyone who didn’t care for the end to read the whole book again.)
Further, a popular criticism of this novel is to say it takes on too much (suicide, gay issues, sexual abuse, drug use, etc.) and becomes unrealistic. Since Charlie hangs out in the margins with kids struggling with various issues, their troubles interlock and fuel other issues. It doesn’t seem as though Chbosky is throwing too much at Charlie, it just seems as though there are kids who feel hopeless at times and Charlie is friends with them. That said, he is a lousy friend when he shifts from being a wallflower to being a doormat. The scene where he does nothing to prevent a rape will leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth. I will understand anyone who says they had to put this book down because Charlie is too spineless to be empathetic.
There are some genuinely funny moments in this book stemming from Charlie’s blunt honesty, but they don’t read well out of context. Somehow, they’re reading as sad. Maybe they’re only funny once you’ve gotten to know the characters, but I do want to include a quote so you get something of his voice. Since we’re still in a holiday season:
Do you enjoy holidays with your family? I don’t mean your mom and dad family, but your uncle and aunt and cousin family? Personally, I do. There are several reasons for this.
First, I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other. Second, the fights are always the same.
They usually start when my mom’s dad (my grandfather) finishes his third drink. It is around this time that he starts to talk a lot.
Overall: 3.5 (out of 5.0) It’s well-written and interesting. Charlie is so conversational and open I can’t imagine a reader not being pulled in. It can feel a little dry at times though, and the end is too sudden if you don’t know what’s coming. There’s not enough leading into it and it feels like an effort to ‘explain’ Charlie when you read it the first time.