Friday, April 3, 2020
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower back in 2013, before my blogging days here. It instantly became one of my favorite young adult novels. When I saw that its author, Stephen Chbosky, had a new book coming out last year, I knew I had to give it a shot. I decided to make both his first and second book part of my Then Versus Now Challenge, so I could experience an old favorite again, and check out his newest (and very different, from what I hear) work.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age novel, quite similar to A Separate Peace or The Catcher in the Rye. It concerns fifteen year old Charlie, a shy and withdrawn boy just about to start high school. The novel is an epistolary; Charlie tells his story entirely through anonymous letters to a person he doesn't actually know. This is quite an effective technique on the part of the author, as it essentially allows the reader to become the person that Charlie is writing to. This feeling of almost being included in the book pulled me in from page one, and this worked just as well on my second reading. Just like the first time I read this, I couldn't put it down.
Through his beautifully honest letters, Charlie describes his anxieties about school, friends, family and girls. It is obvious from the start of the novel that he isn't a normal fifteen year old. Many of his behaviors seem to place him on the autism spectrum, although a formal diagnosis is never discussed. He is socially awkward, doesn't have many friends, cries frequently, and seems too ignorant of his sexuality. He is also highly intelligent, academically successful and unusually empathetic. He is a keen observer of the behavior of those around him. He notices everything, but doesn't always understand what he sees. It's clear that he has some emotional issues and through the course of the novel the explanation for some of his behavior is revealed. Despite his problems, Charlie is the kind of kid you want to root for. As a person that understands social anxiety and shyness, I found that I came to care about him. I really wanted him to figure everything out and make his way in the world.
This novel is frequently referred to as a modern classic, and I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. I can see this becoming required reading in high school one day, much like how The Catcher in the Rye is now. Everyone can find something to relate to here. The dramas of high school stay imprinted in our thoughts long after we graduate, and this book stirred up some of those old memories from the back of my mind and brought them to the surface. Who can't remember a time when they fell in love with someone unattainable or did the wrong thing and caused a big fight? Who hasn't felt acute embarrassment over something silly or enjoyed having class with a teacher they really loved? Most importantly of all, who can't remember having a group of friends who just meant the world to them? I experienced it all again through Charlie's eyes, which had the effect of bringing me deeper into the novel. Even though my high school experience was entirely different from his, there was enough in his story that was universal to all teenagers to make everything feel familiar. I think this novel speaks to a lot of people.
It's true that this novel deals with a lot of tough, controversial issues. They are handled honestly and tactfully, but not deeply. This is a common criticism I have seen of the novel. It includes several very mature issues, like drug use, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, but does not spend a lot of time dealing with them. I believe that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Chbosky to characterize Charlie. He doesn't talk about these issues too much because he can't. His emotional intelligence is all over the place, and he is an unreliable narrator. The way he can describe something that is absolutely terrible in such a matter of fact way adds to the impact of his narration for me. The writing is simple and unadorned throughout the whole novel, regardless of the content of what Charlie is conveying, yet the words are unwittingly wise and make you think while you read.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower definitely held up on my second reading and remains one of my favorite young adult novels. There is just something about this narrator and this story that really draws me in and tugs on my heartstrings. I still would highly recommend this novel to mature teens and young adults. I'm excited to move onto his second novel, Imaginary Friend, and see if I like that one as much.
Then vs. Now: 7/27
Total Books Read in 2020: 31