Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Book review by Monica Friedman
Controversial YA Novel Examines the Mysteries of the Mind
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the quintessential young adult story. There’s sex (gay, straight, and confused, plus masturbation) and drugs (marijuana and LSD), all of which are handled realistically. There’s pain and alienation, which also feels all too real. There are secrets to be revealed and personality growth to be acquired.
It’s all about pain and love and transitioning from childhood to adulthood while overcoming all the stumbling blocks that fall into a life.
Charlie is a bit of an outcast, which is apparent at the first from the book’s form. It’s an epistolary novel, written as a series of one-sided letters from Charlie to someone he addresses only as “friend,” making it clear that he wishes this friend to remain unaware of his identity.
He’s writing these anonymous letters because “I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands.” Later, Charlie reveals that he doesn’t really know this friend, who is just a person he overheard a girl saying kind things about.
Trapped in his own world, Charlie is also desperate for contact, which makes the epistolary form so meaningful. He is a sad boy; he is no stranger to psychiatric hospitalizations, and still feels a grief he cannot express over the recent death of a friend and the earlier death of his favorite aunt.
Although he is shy, and the sort of boy who attends school dances but never speaks to anyone there, one day he approaches a boy he knows as “Nothing” at a football game, because “Nothing seemed like the kind of guy you could just walk up to at a football game even though you were three years younger and not popular.”
Nothing’s real name is Patrick, and he, along with his step-sister, Sam, fold the freshman Charlie into their group of open-minded seniors, opening the door for him to start “participating,” as his honors English teacher, Bill, puts it. And Charlie does. He tries everything that’s offered to him, breaks a heart, has his heart broken, and rockets blindly toward his future.
There’s a twist to the story, but as Charlie points out in the end, “I’m not the way I am because of” it. Charlie, like so many people, young and old, is desperate for meaningful human contact. The mistakes he makes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are due to this hunger, and it is only when he makes others aware of his need does he begin to heal. “The thing that helped me the most,” he reports at the end, are the people who reach out to connect, in person, or through the mail. Things “start to feel like everything was going to be all right…when my sister and brother stayed” to talk. The best part is that Charlie come to the conclusion, on his own, that he is responsible for his life. “Even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from,” he says, “we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel OK about them.”
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