The Perks of Being a Wallflower

There are certain books that make me long for time-travel. When you've been a bookworm from the womb, it's not often that you stumble upon a brilliant YA book that was in print when you were its target demographic and yet it never crossed your path. I realize that it's not possible to read everything (though heaven knows we try), but you'd like to think that you've been thorough in you literary education... and yet there will come a time in your adult years when, for whatever reason, you'll pick up a gem like Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower and you figure you'll give it a whirl. When the moment arrives where you finally start to read this book, your jaw will drop and your mind will scour itself for any possible explanation as to how this wonderful piece slipped through the cracks. You will wish that time travel was an option so that you could slip this book to the front of your sixteen-year-old self's queue so that your younger self could have the pleasure of reading this while still trying to endure high school. I might even correct myself at this point to insist that The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't really a young adult book, even if it's written from the perspective of a high school freshman. It's a literary work of fiction that a reader of any age should be able to appreciate for its complexities, refreshing voice, and the deep emotional reaction it provokes.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel, comprised of letters written by high school freshman Charlie to a "friend" in the early 90s -- though this "friend" recipient is unknown, even by Charlie, who assumes the recipient has no knowledge of him and his life. The "dear friend" essentially substitutes in for a more guy-friendly "dear diary" thing. He's got a sports star older brother who just started college and an older sister with self-confidence issues in an abusive relationship. Prior to the start of the novel, Charlie's only friend committed suicide, leaving Charlie to start high school without a crowd of friends or any sympathetic faces. He's been seeing a therapist and that turns out to be a pretty good thing, as Charlie comes off as being slightly autistic. He's awkward and unpopular (often called a freak), though ultimately it is revealed that his issues are much more serious than initially indicated (though the reader starts to suspect from early on). Charlie is also incredibly sympathetic as as character because he's sensitive and painfully honest, totally clueless to social complexities and subtext. Eventually, he's taken under the wing of two seniors in the alternative crowd -- Sam (a girl whom Charlie falls in love with) and her stepbrother Patrick (a gay boy in a secret relationship with a guy from the in-crowd). Charlie gets an introduction to alcohol, drugs, and relationships, though it's important to note that even if these kids can be a bit self-destructive, we're not talking about overdoses or dealing here. They're simply mixed up kids trying to figure things out and at least they're always incredibly kind to Charlie, who they can tell functions on a bit of a different wavelength. At times he's very perceptive and capable of reacting in the perfect way, but at other moments he becomes overwhelmed, resulting in tears or panic-attacks. He cares deeply for his friends, spending a great deal of time selecting Christmas or graduation presents, and recognizes when people are making a great effort with him. He's appreciative of any notice, though not desperate for it, and clearly there's something in his past that he needs to deal with before he can have any hope of settling in to a more "normal" life.

Despite being a bit emotionally confused, Charlie is clearly very intelligent. As the book progresses, Charlie's writing style improves. An English teacher takes an interest in Charlie, assigning him extra reading and reports that make an impact on Charlie's education and personal growth. His friends allow him to be exposed to new music, which Charlie immediately takes to as a way of expressing emotion. One might consider him to be a bit emotionally stunted, but really, Charlie has so many emotions and he just doesn't know what to do with them. Mostly, he wants his friends to be happy -- whether that means the girl he loves is dating somebody else or his gay friend is using him to get over his heartbreak. His own sexuality is not terribly defined, but eventually it's a reaction to actual sexual activity that causes him to have a mental break as he remembers sexual abuse from childhood at the hands of a trusted relative that he had buried within himself.

The book is obviously influenced by Catcher in the Rye, but caters to an MTV crowd where kids are dealing with the same issues in new ways (or, perhaps, the same ways, just with a different set of cultural touchstones). Charlie, though, is not nearly the same jaded kid as Holden... he's just stumbling through high school and enjoying his friends while he can. There might be a lot of worry for the future buried in Charlie's mind, but he's also very good about reminding us to enjoy the moments we have, perfect moments laughing with friends or receiving encouragement from a beloved mentor. As such a vulnerable young man, the reader wishes she could hug him and tell him that everyone must endure high school, but Charlie has been given a lot of things to endure.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is for every kid who felt like they were on the outside looking in, misunderstood, or in some way just not quite fitting in during high school. It's impossible to not fall in love with Charlie. Your heart breaks for him over and over again, but somehow that's perfectly okay because you know that at least he's living and engaging with others. These may not have been episodes from your own high school career, but you'll understand the highs and lows (particularly the lows) endured by each one of these sympathetic characters. I really do wish I could somehow put this in the hands of my younger self, but for those of us who grew up in the 90s, this is a bit of an experiment in time-travel itself as you're transported back to a time not so very long ago when we were all awkward and uncertain, with a wealth of mistakes still ahead of us and a soundtrack of songs that made us feel infinite.

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