#IMWAYR (6/29/2020): The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

For #IMWAYR, I am recommending The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.

A word of caution to any young readers: this book is a YA (young adult) novel, not an MG (middle grade) novel and contains quite a bit of mature content.


Cover of the movie tie-in edition


          Published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the debut novel by Stephen Chbosky and remains one of just two books he has written in his career, which has largely been dedicated to movies and television (he actually wrote and directed the movie adaptation of this very book). Written in epistolary form, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a series of letters written in 1991 and 1992 to an anonymous recipient by a high school freshman named Charlie. Charlie's stay-in-the-background nature and unidentified mental health issues are not exactly the keys to high school success, but he is fortunate enough to befriend two seniors who are step-brother and sister, Patrick and Sam. These kind kids help Charlie get through the terrifying mess of romantic feelings and substance abuse that we call high school, and, with their help, Charlie learns that, although being a wallflower has some true perks, there is something to be said for actually getting out there and living life. (I realize this summary is vague, but this book isn't built up around some dramatic plot with distinctive elements—instead, it is just a faithful depiction of a kid's freshman year in high school. And be lucky I didn't use the publisher's description, which is even more vague.)

          Wow. I haven't read as many YA books as some people (although I've read more than I've reviewed on this blog), but I can tell you without a doubt that this book is unlike no other, and that's a good thing. The first thing I want to say is that, as a self-described "wallflower" myself, I am quite touchy about the way in which such kids are depicted in books. I have to say, Chbosky absolutely blew me away with how well Charlie's wallfloral nature is depicted. Charlie spends much of his life observing and listening to others, but instead of being depicted as some unfeeling, anthropological character, Charlie actually uses the knowledge he gains both to become deeply (but not unrealistically) wise and to connect with the people around him. I loved one place in the book where Charlie uses the knowledge he has gained of Patrick, Sam, and some other friends to pick the perfect gifts for them, because the occurrence spoke to how being introverted or listening to others can actually be valuable qualities. I did appreciate, though, that readers see throughout the story how Charlie's nature has prevented him from getting to enjoy many aspects of life that his peers are enjoying. This book effortlessly balances the perks of being a wallflower with the downsides.

          Another thing that is truly amazing about this book is that it never sugarcoats reality. Many YA authors seem to stay away from mentioning some of the, shall we say, mature feelings/events that people experience in high school. However, doing so can be an injustice to actual high schoolers, who are left feeling like they must be the odd one out if not a single character in these books that purportedly show YA life feels like they do. Chbosky clearly understands this, as, in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, these feelings and events are just a fact of life—sometimes a good fact, sometimes a bad fact, sometimes a neutral fact. Chbosky also uses the story as a platform to tackle an enormous number of important topics: rape, abortion, child abuse, the list goes on (and on), occasionally to the book's detriment—a few topics don't get the amount of handling that they deserve, but most do, and you can't help but admire Chbosky's ambition. One topic I was particularly impressed to see explored was Patrick's experience being gay, which is shockingly progressive for a book published 21 years ago. I also appreciate how much this book does to normalize mental health issues: Charlie is still able to be a good friend and a wise person in spite of his mental struggles. I would be impressed to see a modern book tackle this much, so the fact that a book did so long ago is truly amazing to me.

          There are some other things I want to mention. First of all, Charlie has an incredibly distinctive voice in his letters: he is wise, but never pretentiously so, and he is observant, but not like some author who writes about "the insignificant dew-drops on the thin blades of grass, almost blinding with their green color...." Charlie is somehow a typical teenager, an odd one out among teenagers, and an excellent book protagonist, all at the same time. I also really appreciate the characters of Patrick and Sam, for their kindness in accepting Charlie and helping him get through freshman year, for their own struggles, and for their own unique character traits. The three characters share a love of music, and there are some interesting references to 1990s bands and mix tapes (it's sad how giving people a collection of songs is no longer a thing now that people have Spotify or other music streaming services). There's also some interesting references to fan-made performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which were apparently popular in the 1990s—I personally had no clue what was going on in this plot line for most of the book. This reminds me: I also liked the minor plotline between Charlie and his English teacher, Bill, who sees Charlie's unique intelligence and assigns him a number of important books to read outside of school. Very few teachers go to the lengths that Bill does to make sure that Charlie utilizes his smarts, which made me very impressed by Bill as a character. Lastly, I also want to mention the depiction of Charlie's family, both immediate and extended, in the book: books often seem to skip over the important nuances of family relationships, but this book takes great care in depicting Charlie's relationship with his siblings, his parents, and his extended family who he mainly sees on holidays.

          It's really difficult to explain why this book is so amazing, because it is so unlike other books that the usual methods of praise don't apply. Most books spotlight just one or two of the many different aspects of life. But this book attempts to depict as many aspects of life as it possibly can, and, incredibly, it actually works. I have never read a book like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I can say with certainty that no book I've ever heard of depicts high school and everything surrounding it as well as this book.

Update (1/2/2021): My rating is: Stunning!



Comments

  1. Last night my granddaughter chose a movie for us to watch, and this is the movie she chose. I went on line and ordered a copy of the book. I can't wait to read it. The movie was so good and so rich, I can only imagine how good the book will be. Thanks for your thoughts. I enjoyed reading your post.

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the movie! I actually haven't seen the movie yet, so I'm glad that it lives up to expectations! Thanks for reading my review!

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  2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of my all time favourite YA novels. I went from listening to the audiobook (which is brilliant) right into reading the book with my eyes. I still haven't seen the movie. If you are interested, here is my review of this book. https://dickenslibrary.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-perks-of-being-wallflower-by.html

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    1. I love your review of the book! Your explanation of what makes the book so excellent is perfect! Thanks for reading my review!

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  3. I loved Perks of Being a Wallflower!! I didn't read it until after the movie came out, so before I even finished reading I bought the DVD. Then I and my daughter read it and watched it together. So moving - such depth of character and painful feelings! If I was at all into horror, I'd probably read his Imaginary Friend. Thanks for sharing this wonderful review!

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    1. I really need to watch the movie! Also, I thought Imaginary Friend sounded intriguing, but besides being horror, it's also 700 pages, and I don't know when I would have time to read that! Thanks for reading my review!

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  4. Oh my, I hadn't thought of this book in a long time & it is wonderful. Your detailed review helped me re-live quite a bit of it. Maybe time to watch the movie? Thanks for sharing this book!

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    1. I'm probably going to watch the movie myself, considering the other commenters have enjoyed it! Thanks for reading my review!

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  5. I read this a few years ago based on my high school brother's recommendations. If I remember correctly, this is a good book because it mentions other books the reader may want to read.

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    1. Charlie's teacher Bill does refer to quite a few classic books in the story. Thanks for reading my review!

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  6. It's been a long time since I read this one and I did not watch the movie, so it kind of took me back a while and I remembered how much I enjoyed this. Thanks for the post!

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