Tuesday, October 9, 2012
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Release Date: February 1, 1999
Publisher: MTV Books and Pocket Books
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.
This haunting novel about the dilemma of passivity vs. passion marks the stunning debut of a provocative new voice in contemporary fiction: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
This is the story of what it's like to grow up in high school. More intimate than a diary, Charlie's letters are singular and unique, hilarious and devastating. We may not know where he lives. We may not know to whom he is writing. All we know is the world he shares. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it puts him on a strange course 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.
Through Charlie, Stephen Chbosky has created a deeply affecting coming-of-age story, a powerful novel that will spirit you back to those wild and poignant roller coaster days known as growing up.(courtesy of Goodreads)
I am computer-less for the next week. My hard drive decided to take an undeserved vacation, so it is on its way to Salt Lake City where it will get a brand new hard drive. I'll pick it up when I fly to Utah this weekend (going to the Libba Bray event!!!!). I'll still be able to update the blog through my husband's computer at night but my comments will probably be limited. Boo. :-(
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a classic coming of age literary young adult novel. Too often these kinds of novels try too hard. As though the authors unconsciously push the plot and characters into the background and place themselves in the foreground: "Hey, my writing is incredible! I'm really smart! Look at me!" But The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not like that. It is the perfect balance of character, plot, and skillful writing.
Charlie is an unusual boy living an ordinary teenage life. I mean unusual in the best way. He is young for his age, naive, quiet, and genuine. He has no bravado, yet he is a man of his word. If he promises to help you, he will; if he promises to hurt you, he will - with steadfast determination and no fanfare. He is haunted by the recent suicide of his friend and by things that we understand as the book goes on. He tends toward depression. He is intelligent and thoughtful. Despite his naivete about high school culture, his observations about the world and humanity are from a mind far beyond his age. These kind of characters often feel fake - like an adult philosopher masquerading as a teenage boy - but Mr. Chbosky writes Charlie in such a way that I entirely believed him. I spent much of the novel wishing I could be friends with Charlie and wishing I could give him a hug and make all his worries disappear.
Perks is as much a story about a family as it is about friends. Charlie's family is slightly disfunctional in a very real sense. They're not the picture-perfect TV family, but neither are they the disturbed, need-to-alert-CPS families that authors often create to drum up a plot. They have their own demons, as all families do. I loved Charlie's relationship with his sister. They're at the age where a three year age difference is starting to feel smaller. There is a gap in experience but their lives are converging. Life most siblings, they hate each other, they love each other. They snap at each other, they go out of their was to help each other.
Of course, there wouldn't be a story without Patrick and Sam. (And Mary Elizabeth). Doesn't everyone wish they'd had wise seniors to take them under their wing freshman year? Patrick and Sam are kind and open-minded. They befriend Charlie out of genuine kindness. There's no "I'm doing you a big favor" or "I'm just pretending to like you" attitude. Patrick and Sam realize they are mentors of sort to Charlie, but see him as an equal. They also appreciate Charlie for his ability to like them. Life as a gay teenager is even harder in 1991 than it is today. Patrick doesn't have it easy. And Sam is different than other girls. A free spirit that also seems trapped.
Perks is an epistolary novel. The use of letters to tell the story puts the novel in the literary realm. Charlie's musings about life works feels far more genuine in letters than if they were included in the traditional narrative format. However, epistolary style inserts distance between the reader and the events. It can make the book feel impersonal. I thought the book was written in such a way that Charlie's voice stood on equal ground with the actual plot.
And what is the plot? It's nothing remarkable. Just a typical school year in a typical school full of typical kids. Books about ordinary life are often the most remarkable kind, because we can all relate. I loved reading about Charlie's fledgling relationship with Mary Elizabeth, his adventures at the Rocky Horror Picture Show (a movie which I have not and probably never will see), and just the every day moments of friendship.
Perks is one of the most frequently challenged books for censorship. And I can see why. The list of controversial topics it doesn't cover is smaller than the list it does cover. We have drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, abortion, rape, dating abuse, and more. Yet anyone who reads this book with even a slightly open mind should realize that the "edgy" parts of Perks are the least memorable. What will stick with you are Charlie's sweetness and wisdom and the power of family and friends.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower should be on the list for any fan of well-written contemporary novels. I think if I'd read this at 13 or 14, it would be my iconic novel, the one I'd read over and over. It didn't have quite that level of sticking power for me, but I loved the book nonetheless.