Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a novel about intelligent high school kids. Hollywood likes to think audiences only want to hear about the dumb ones who do nothing but party, talk about the opposite sex, and have no ideas of their own. I hope the movie starring Emma Watson doesn't follow this tradition. Because Stephen Chbosky has written a novel that allows teenagers to have their own ideas and even be wise. Of course, there is still partying, drugs, sex, love, and all of that stuff, but that's part of growing up. And Chbosky handles it in a mature way.

It's 1991, and Charlie has just begun high school. He's nervous because he's a very shy kid. He doesn't have a lot of friends and doesn't make them easily. At least until he meets Sam and Patrick, who are stepsiblings and are in their senior year. Charlie immediately falls for Sam, though she tells him not to think of her that way, and Patrick has a secret gay relationship with the star quarterback, Brad. It should be no surprise that by the end of the novel Charlie will have been kissed by both Patrick and Sam. Kissed by them because he's far too passive to actually initiate the kissing. These are his closest friends, and he learns a lot from them. In one profound scene he is so happy to be with them that he proclaims he feels "infinite."

Charlie, from the upcoming MTV movie
Charlie comes from a pretty good family. He has nice parents who are mostly out of the picture. They don't seem to mind that he stays out late on school nights, and they don't seem to realize he's started chain smoking. Charlie also has an older sister, who's a senior and one of the smartest of her class, and an older brother, who plays football for Penn State. Charlie's relationship with his siblings is mixed. He doesn't not get along with them, per se, but they generally have nothing to do with one another. This is especially true after Charlie walks in on his sister having sex with her boyfriend and she calls him a pervert.

Sam, from the upcoming MTV movie
The novel is written in the form of letters from Charlie to an anonymous person. This adds a sense of intimacy to the novel. It's as though Charlie's writing the letters and sharing his experiences with you, the reader. I grew to like Charlie. He's overemotional and cries a lot, and he seems unhappy more than he is happy. I would say that's part of being a teenager, because it is, but Charlie's definitely different than most teenagers. In addition to being very sensitive, he is very smart. He reads and enjoys books like To Kill A Mockingbird and A Separate Peace, books most high schoolers despise with a passion. I liked Charlie from the start, but these feelings were cemented in a touching scene where he discovers sympathy for George Bailey in A Wonderful Life, the character who gets drunk and squanders the money that forces Jimmy Stewart to sacrifice his dreams. He wishes the movie were from George Bailey's perspective because he wants to believe that George's life has meaning. Like I said, Charlie's a bright kid.

His English teacher, Bill, recognizes this too. He befriends Charlie and lets him borrow books, modern day classics like Catcher in the Rye, and asks him to write essays about them. Bill is a cool teacher. I want to be like Bill. He has a dream of leaving teaching and writing plays, but likes teaching so much he decides not to quit. The friendship between these two blossoms and we learn Bill's intentions towards the end in perhaps the novel's most touching scene.

Patrick, from the upcoming MTV movie
It's clear that Charlie is depressed. He's sad about his Aunt Helen's death because they were close. Though with Aunt Helen you get a sense that there's something more. He also visits psychiatrists who do nothing but ask him about his past, which bothers him. Bill encourages him to participate in life, which is great advice, though it does get Charlie into drugs and alcohol. It also gets him his first girlfriend, Mary Elizabeth, who soon discovers she needs somebody a little less passive. Charlie seems to take in his experiences like a sponge. Or, rather, like a wallflower. He lets things happen around him and observes and thinks, but this frustrates people because they want him to act.

Despite all of this focus on sorrow, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a soothing read due to its poetic language. Chbosky so accurately reflects high school life that it made me think back to my high school days. My first crush. My first heartache. Like Charlie, I was amazed when somebody else regarded me as a somebody, rather than the nobody I acted like I was. That was why Bill wanted him to participate, and so do Sam and Patrick. What Chbosky's trying to say is that you can learn a lot by being a wallflower, but to experience life and feel "infinite" requires that you actually do something rather than wait for it to happen. You might be surprised by the results.


  1. Great review. I'm looking forward to the movie and I hope they capture the overall essence and feeling of the book.

  2. Your review really makes me want to read this book! I had no idea it was an epistolary novel!! And I really hope Hollywood doesn't change the story to make it fit their stereotype!
    Juli @ Universe in Words

  3. Awesome review. I might actually see this movie.