Thursday, 5 February 2015

Review: The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Book cover of The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I'm simply horrendous at reading books when they're actually relevant - either when they're first released, when the movie version comes out or when my friends are reading and loving it. It usually takes a random flash of inspiration to remind me that a book exists and then maybe I'll finally, finally read it. Or more often, not.

Plot summary:  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.

As it turns out, I had absolutely no idea what this book was actually about. I think I had a vague idea about a coming-of-age novel, something to do with a quiet teenager who finds new friends? While I wasn't strictly wrong (not that I'd ever admit to it if I was), there's a lot more to The Perks of Being A Wallflower than I expected.

Charlie is a slightly odd, quiet teenager who writes long letters detailing his life to the friend of a schoolmate, who he once heard was a decent person. He uses this as a sort-of journal and so we get to hear about the minor dramas that make up Charlie's life. I would have loved to learn more about the recipient of these letters - it's hardly the point of the story, but I do think that perhaps one letter in response would have tied the whole book up nicely.

It actually works really well. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's 'moving,' but there's a certain twist to Charlie's tone that lets you know that there's something undernearth the surface. I think I twigged fairly early on that he has some sort of mental illness, but then I do have a penchant for this kind of book. I loved that it never really felt the need to tell the reader exactly what Charlie has, thus avoiding the labels of 'mental health book.' This way Perks gets to remain a simple coming-of-age novel that's read and loved almost universally.

Charlie is perfect. Slightly naive to the point where you just can't help but want to help him out. I also think he represents a lot of our own teenage anxieties - not necessarily the drama present in his life, but the usual concerns about whether your friends actually like having you around and your parents discovering exactly how much you drank last weekend.

I had a harder time relating to some of the other characters, who don't really seem to be believable teenagers. I accept that they're two years older than Charlie, but they're so... liberal (diplomacy at its best) that it seems like they're already at college. No live-at-home teenager has that much freedom or quite as philosophical a world view.

Sam occasionally irritated me as I think she may be the least developed character, which is odd considering she's probably the second-most important. She reads more like a caricature of a person than any believable approximation, having very lofty ideals towards the end and it did feel like she took advantage of Charlie somewhat, which doesn't fit with everything else we'd been told about her values.

I did not see that ending coming and hadn't even been a little bit spoilered. While I didn't hate it and I don't object to it, I'm still not sure that it was strictly necessary especially as the narrative goes out of its way to state that It wasn't responsible for Charlie's difficulties. It does seem as if the purpose was primarily shock value and that does tend to irritate me.

Spoilery about the ending: 

I do feel that it may trivialise and over-simplify sexual abuse a little. 'Oh, I was sexually abused and so now I sexually abuse other people.'
Well, no. It doesn't always work like that, but it was presented as if this was a perfectly natural and understandable development.

Aaaaaaaaand I'm done.

I do think there's something here for everyone - every teenager who feels a little isolated from their peers, but also every adult who feels grateful that they never have to go through that awkward stage again! The Perks of Being A Wallflower deals with mental illness, sexual awakenings, anxiety, homosexuality, teenage relationships and probably a lot more. There's an awful lot packed into this seemingly simple book and, while it has its faults, I recommend it very highly.

Read Ellie's review of the book and movie here.   

8 comments:

  1. I think that since I read this in high school, it was such a huge book and life changing book for me! I've never read anything like that with such subject matters. If I pick it up today, it might be a little different for me now but like you said, I would still recommend everyone to try it out.

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    1. I agree - I think this would be a much different book to me if I'd read it when I actually was a teenager, but I actually think I might have appreciated it LESS when I was a teenager. I struggled to relate to others much more, where I think I've gotten a little better at it in my mid-twenties.

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  2. Huh. Turns out that I had no idea what it was about either! I'd thought the same as you - some kind of coming-of-age story. I did keep this out when many of my books went into storage while we work on decorating so I'll be reading it within the next 10 books that I get to (not counting War and Peace, obviously) and I'm much more excited about it now. Also, I really want to watch the film because I really like Emma Watson. I don't know quite why and I've no idea who she even plays because the only character I've heard about is Charlie but there we are!

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    1. She plays Sam - and I think I liked her more in the movie than in the book. The always-wonderful Ezra Miller is Patrick. YAY FOR MORE PERKS LOOOOVE. The film's one of the best book adaptations I've ever seen, probably because Chbosky wrote it! :)

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    2. Oh, I didn't know he wrote the screenplay. But... I don't like Emma Watson OR Ezra Miller, so there seems little point in me watching it :p I understand why EW was a good casting choice (personal dislike aside) but I imagined (damn, I've forgotten his name) as completely different.

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    3. That's a shame, it's a great movie - and Logan Lerman is PERFECT.

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  3. YEEEEEEEESSSSS. And that's all I have to say. For once, you liked a book I liked. :)

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    1. I know, right? I was kind of relieved...

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