Book Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Image from Amazon.com

If you have not read this novel (and/or seen the movie), perhaps you are a little out of the loop or a little old? It is a modern manifesto of the teen life, since the late 90s but still extremely loved and adopted by each decade of teens since. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is written by Stephen Chbosky, perhaps an unlikely person to have written the quintessential teen manifesto novel. Why? He just has a strange career and had intended to work in film. He has written screenplays and directed and worked in TV, including the movie adaptations of Wallflower, Wonder, the newer Beauty and the Beast, and Dear Evan Hansen.And then he wrote another novel, twenty years later, a psychological horror novel, Imaginary Friend.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary coming-of-age, YA novel set in Pittsburg in what appears (to me) to be my high school years (in the mid-nineties). The set-up is Charlie—our unconventional hero—writing to an anonymous person. He’s kind of a strange, quirky, outcast, new freshman (who is older due to being held back when his aunt died and he suffered a mental breakdown in elementary school). His best friend has recently committed suicide. He has no friends. Punky Sam and Patrick step-siblings take him under their wings and eventually ingratiate him to their friends, who are like 18-22 or so. Lots of drugs and sex ensue as well as afternoons at the Big Boy and Fridays at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We see the usual malls, football games, school dances, school fights, cruising, parties, and hanging out at a friends’, first crush, first relationship, first everything, basically. Meanwhile, Charlie’s sister is crashing through her emotional, dramatic, senior year and his brother is off to play football at the college level. The parents are a little clueless, which the protagonist enjoys cuz, duh, he’s a teen. But at the heart of it all, Charlie’s dealing with figuring out who he is and what he believes as well as his dark past and mental illness. Ultimately, as well, it’s a sort of catalogue of teen moments and nostalgia (for the 90s and for grown-ups, at least).

This book is excellent. A one-off from Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is both incredibly popular, pretty enduring (since 1999), and one of the most challenged books of the past couple decades. My daughter loves this book. My husband loves this book. I hadn’t read it, but now that I have, I love this book.

What I love: the voice, the endearing quality of the character, even the epistolary form which works far better here than it should because it kinda doesn’t make sense and it’s strictly necessary. I was really happy to see that Charlie’s maturity level is pretty spot-on to, and he’s got a bumpy ride to figure out how to get from point childhood to point adult. The story isn’t cliffhangery but you can’t put it down because the stakes are always so high. It’s fun. Sometimes funny. Continually insightful. You can probably relate somewhere. It is pretty all-encompassing of all these shared experiences. In the end, it’s uplifting despite the bad things that happen and the bad decisions that are made. You enjoy the cool kids. You enjoy the fun times. You see all the characters through the eyes of someone who is extremely generous and kind, to a fault, so you root for everyone. As far as the nostalgia, these are, date-wise, my high school years (ending in 1997). But it’s universal in that there are no historical markers or too many other tell-tale signs. No tech, really, except tapes. Even the typeset and lower case (in parts) feels high school (which is probably because it was done by MTV and it does rub some people the wrong way).

I read this book now because I am writing a YA, coming-of-age series that takes place largely in high school. How did that work out for me, here? For one, I got to see how someone wrote a world with no tech except tapes making it universal time without the messiness of social media and smartphones. This is what I am hoping to do, but the thing is that my story is probably taking place in the nineties, too. It was also great to read the teenage, male voice with authenticity and to walk along on all those usual YA struggles, both internal and external. My book will hopefully capture all that and a bag of chips. While my story is ultimately fantasy, it mostly takes place in a typical, middle/upper middle class high school setting, somewhere in the Midwest (which was here the East Coast). Either way, it captures many things I would like to recapture, at least in the A World (the reality world) of my series.

Besides all the wonderful things I just said about this book, however, as a parent I have some issues. And when you watch the movie, especially, I think it becomes clear that this story would have made loads more sense if these kids were all in college (and Charlie was an incoming freshman). And also be warned about this: like much fiction, it is completely unrealistic about consequences. Don’t expect your teen to understand the real world from Wallflowers, when what it really is is a fun, for-some-nostalgic, for-some-relevant, romp of a novel with a few more serious subjects (including coming of age) wrapped up in it. You are completely welcome to skip my rant below and just rest assured that this is still a great book, one that teens love, but one that is probably a little “old” for its supposed characters and not very realistic in some senses. Still a great book.

RANT WHICH COMES FROM THIS BOOK BUT IS ABOUT BEING A TEEN PARENT, I SUPPOSE:

Thinking aloud, here.

I have one rant to go on about this book. It is, for all intents and purposes, fantastical. I don’t mean the genre, but that it is extremely unrealistic in the way that genre fiction (like romance) can be. While some topics are taken seriously (suicide, abuse, mental illness, relationships, friendships, activism), there are other topics that are very, very casual (drugs (including marijuana and nicotine, over-the-counters and hard stuff), alcohol, sex, sexuality, finances/money, abortion, risky behavior of all sorts). (There were moments when I wondered if Chbosky purposely included every teen vice that he could think of, on purpose, like a checklist.) And then these things are played off like the only reason there would be consequences to these types of things are because adults give them consequences. And that’s because adults are restricted, old fuddy-duddies out of touch with reality. While a fairly common idea through the ages, how about the adults dishing out consequences are doing it because they have more maturity, experience, and perspective and they want their teens to be happy, healthy, and, to some extent, safe? Or a combination of their own cultural upbringing with sincere care? And where-oh-where are the natural consequences? The “hip” adults just might be the dumb ones, truly.

And the message of this book: no matter what you do in your teen years and no matter what happens to you, it’ll be graduation with the best friends you ever had, valedictorian, and rolling off to the college of your dreams. It’ll all be okay. Will it? And this: if you decide something was a bad idea, you just choose to stop, you just decide not to perpetuate something, apologize, and move on. Newsflash: it’s very often not that simple. Addiction, bad habits, poverty, recovery, illness, death, broken relationships, etc.: these are real things which even well-intentioned people don’t always return from, at least not whole. Which I guess makes Charlie and his friends conventional heroes? Maybe. It’s like the way our whole culture handles alcohol, just ignoring the struggles of millions of Americans and their families with alcoholism. Just because we believe in freedom of choice doesn’t mean we should gloss over the realities attached to those freedoms.

I mean, many books have this fantastical element to them, where life is rosier in fiction. I read books like that all the time. This bothers me in this book, though, because there are also some really serious things dealt with and the book is set up as so real; I feel like the messages could be confusing, the lines crossed. Probably most kids are going to read this book, enjoy it, and NOT run out to experiment with hard drugs, start smoking, and throw themselves into bed with their first boyfriend/girlfriend (and without protection). Obviously, some teens are going to make terrible decisions. (Maybe they should read Junk as well as Wallflowers.) However, I think this message is bolstered by the current attitude out there, the current swinging of the pendulum to the far side. Many people, especially youths, embrace a narrative of risky behavior being not only normal but cool and necessary to wokeness and these tend to downplay the real-world results (physical, emotional, relational, etc.) of deciding to, for example, hook up or take drugs. Isn’t figuring out your life, who you are, dealing with anxiety, navigating relationships, etc. enough? (Also, so many teens are not mature enough for these sorts of thing, anyway. Books and movies often portray teens much wiser and mature than most of them really are. That’s normal, but still. (Note that Chbosky sort of up-ages his characters. The seniors are all 18, they hang with college kids, and the main character freshman is almost 16 when the story starts.)) And you do not have to be a rebel to come out happy and balanced in the end! Sincerely. Hmm… I wouldn’t say don’t read this book. I’m not trying to ban it or something. I would say have a little perspective: despite its depth and realness, there is an element of fantasy (not to mention privilege and insulation) to this whole story. It’s entertainment and we want to see the hero succeed. To which my eighteen-year-old daughter just said, “Yeah, I guess…”

Perhaps I’m missing the point; it’s just a light-hearted teenage manifesto. And I’m just a concerned adult out of touch with reality. I don’t think adults should stop being concerned, though. Even that is part of the process. Nor should we cowtow to teenagers and young adults who think they’re more relevant or smarter than we are. Nor should we perpetuate our own unhealthy, cultural beliefs, if we can find them and root them out, God willing. Helicoptering our children and then suddenly handing them a platter of shiny, new freedoms at age thirteen or even eighteen, however, is a little bit weird, people, and a little bit wrong. And the rant (which has to do with much more than just this book, obviously) is over.

QUOTES

“I wish I knew. It might make me miss him more clearly. It might have made sad sense” (p4).

“’Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve’” (p24).

“I don’t think we should base so much on weight, muscles, and a good hair day, but when it happens, it’s nice. It really is” (p67).

“It’s like when you’re excited about a girl and you see a couple holding hands, and you feel so happy for them. And other times you see the same couple, and they make you so mad. And all you want is to always feel happy for them because you know that if you do, then it means that you’re happy, too” (p96).

“I feel like a big faker because I’ve been putting my life back together, and nobody knows. It’s hard to sit in my bedroom and read like I always did” (p100).

“The book takes place in the 1920s, which I thought was great because I supposed the same kind of conversation could happen in the Big Boy. It probably already did with our parents and grandparents. It was probably happening with us right now” (p105).

“She also said that people who try to control situations all the time are afraid that if they don’t, nothing will work out the way they want” (p130).

“Especially since I know that if they went to another school, the person who had their heart broken would have had their heart broken by somebody else, so why does it have to be so personal?” (p142).

“But try to be a filter, not a sponge” (p165).

“But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there” (p211).

MOVIE

See previous review HERE. Liked it better after I’d read the book, actually. I’d recommend reading this review, even if you want to read the book, because it’ll give you a perspective from a different year of my life.

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