Posted on April 6, 2014 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012) by Stephen Chbosky
Here be spoilers.
The last book I reviewed was Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King, and afterwards I felt like such a tool. I really disliked that novel and my aversion certainly came out in my harsh assessment. Honestly, I much prefer to share only those books I think are fantastic and worth your time to read, but that's just not realistic. And I suppose there's value in warning readers away from the turds, too. So after tearing Vera Dietz a new one, it was both a relief and a pleasure to read Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Organized as a series of letters written to an unnamed person, the novel walks us through the tumultuous freshman year of a teen named Charlie. The protagonist is writing these missives to someone he doesn't even know, partly because he's lonely, partly because he's codependent, and partly because he has a few things he needs to get off his chest. I suppose its his version of spilling his guts to a bartender, someone who's disconnected from the action and impartial about Charlie's role in it all. And the reader gets to come along for the ride.
Now this book isn't plot-driven and I know some readers hate it when a story takes a very non-linear course without a discernible beginning, middle or end. However, I enjoy books like this and Chbosky does a good job of setting up some early points of tension and then building on them as the book progresses. This all starts with Charlie recounting his grief when his best friend from junior high commits suicide. Charlie feels like he's the only person still grieving the loss and this colors a lot of the other things he experiences. It also paints the protagonist as an unusually sensitive kid. He cries a lot – and I mean a lot! He doesn't seem to be embarrassed about how easily he's moved to tears and initially we're not sure why he's so fragile. We do know that he suffered another loss early on when his beloved aunt Helen was killed in an automobile accident the day before his birthday. While Charlie does have a supportive family, it's difficult for them to understand or even effectively deal with his daily dramatics. What's worse is that he feels like he's being slowly abandoned. His older brother has left for college and his sister's about to follow suit. On top of it all, Charlie's in a new school where he's quickly pegged as a freak.
Still, Charlie begins to reach out. His language arts teacher is so impressed with his writing ability that he piles on extra assignments and gives the boy a stack of classic novels to read — all of which results in a deep friendship between the two. But things really begin to turn around when Charlie meets Samantha and Patrick, a feisty step-brother and sister duo who take him under their collective wings and provide the nonjudgmental friendship he really desires. Both graduating seniors, Sam and Patrick introduce their sheltered charge to the antics of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, high school parties, hangovers, hash brownies and even his first romantic encounters. But none of this is meant to corrupt the boy. There's true affection between the three friends. Unfortunately, Charlie's so socially awkward that he doesn't know how to be a good friend in return. He stays silent when he should speak up. He mistakes lying for being supportive; and when truthful he's often tragically undiplomatic. Still, the reader can forgive Charlie for all this because we haven't forgotten that there's still something just a little off about him. When it's finally revealed why Charlie's so emotionally damaged, it's handled with great tact and the reader's so invested in the character that you have nothing but sympathy for him.
The strength of Chbosky's writing is his ability to create a distinctive voice. You can almost hear Charlie resonating through your head with all his inflections, hesitations and peculiarities. He becomes a fully realized person — a surprisingly rare thing in modern young adult fiction which tends to be filled with teenage clichés and stereotypes. This book, like Charlie, is a real keeper.