Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Perks of Being a Wallflower — Stephen Chbosky

There are some books that only get better the more you read them; each time it reaffirms the reasons you loved it to begin with, but also you'll find new reasons—things you may have missed the first, second, or third time. However, there is something lost with each new read, something that can only be experienced the first time. For me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is that a book, with a simplicity and emotional resonance that each time crawls in and nestles against whatever remnants still remain of my teenage heart.

Stephen Chbosky’s first novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is the stunning coming-of-age story for the 21st century. It leaves blistering metaphors about innocence lost and not-so-subtle references to the biblical behind and focuses instead on just the inner-struggles of a young boy named Charlie who tries with all of his might to find a place where he belongs.

I've heard people claim that Perks is "too full of it's own emotional importance" to be taken seriously as a great work of fiction, and I admit to understanding why someone would think that... at first. But I disagree that this is a hindrance to the story; on the contrary, what Charlie goes through is not merely unrelatable fiction designed to entertain adolescents. Sounds corny, perhaps, and certainly clichéd, but every step that Charlie takes in discovering how he fits in and what makes him different manages to grip onto you and pull you effortlessly along, because it's real. This self-referential, narrator-to-reader relationship is a rarity in modern novels written for teenagers.

Charlie tells his own story here, and he does so through a series of letters that he writes to an unknown person—unknown, essentially, even to him. He explains that he heard good things about this person from someone, and he wants to write to him/her with the hopes that they will simply listen. No strings attached. His voice is young and fragile; his understanding of the world and himself is sadly naive; his kindness and compassion towards even the most terrible of people is inspiring. Charlie is brave, but is often a coward. He’s incredibly smart, but doesn’t quite get it. He knows how to read others, but doesn’t really know himself. He wants nothing more than friendship, but struggles with knowing what it really means, and how to deal with the pain of falling in love.

This may sound all too familiar; what coming-of-age tale doesn’t cover these themes? But there is something unique about Charlie’s story. Perhaps it is his sweetness and innocent view of the world. Perhaps it is his variety of friends—most notably Patrick, who is gay (and written by Chbosky in such a way that draws attention away from stereotypes, yet is simultaneously not afraid to show a “dark side” to young gay life), and Sam, who is a voice of reason and understanding throughout Charlie’s journey, and yet struggles with her own dilemmas and mistakes. Perhaps it is the fact that Chbosky doesn't shy away from the topics that are relevant to modern teenagers: drugs, sex, music, loneliness, depression, abuse, homosexuality, and young love.

For me, what takes Perks from being just another decent novel to one that's "nearly perfect" is how exactly it reflects me on a personal level: struggles, fears, and insecurities. As the title implies, Charlie’s story is all about what happens when you don’t participate; what life is like for those who sit on the sidelines; the benefits and struggles of sitting and watching and understanding, but never really being part of the experience.

That is my life. This book is me.

Like Hector tells Posner in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

That’s what The Perks of Being a Wallflower was to me when I was 16, and what it still is today. More than anything—more than the way Charlie is or how he views the world—it’s what people make him realize about himself; it’s finishing the book and realizing the mistake of living a life only for others… of never truly participating. Charlie learns, and to my surprise, I did too.

I recommend this book to anyone accepting of some melodrama (what teenager isn't an emotional mess who thinks no one understands them?) and personal self-reflection, though I feel there is something special about reading this book in high school—something that, otherwise, might be missed. If you are not in high school, you may not understand what it is that makes the story so great, though you would likely be touched in one way or another, if you are open to it. Every freshman high school student should read this book. Everyone should see the world through Charlie’s eyes.



  1. i completely agree. i fell in love with this book. i'm a senior in high school and can remember those days. it is a statement of my own life, as well.

  2. i completely love this book(: