The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (review copy) - Charlie's not the biggest geek in high school, but he's by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent, yet socially awkward, Charlie is a wallflower, standing on the threshold of his life whilst watching everyone else live theirs.
As Charlie tries to navigate his way through unchartered territory - the world of first dates and mix tapes, family dramas and new friends - he realises he can't stay on the sidelines forever. There comes a time when you have to see what life looks like from the dance floor. From the blurb.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is considered a modern classic and highly acclaimed. Because of this, I have only just read it for the first time. I generally have problems with classics - not in enjoyment or some kind of snobbery, I just tend to have trouble understanding them. The classics that are from decades ago. However, I was never aware how recently Perks was written, and so overlooked it because of intimidation. This is just going to be another one of those books that's just too smart for me to get. Without ever really picking it up, I would see it on the shelves in book stores and look at it sadly, feeling inadequate and unintelligent because I wouldn't be able to read it.
Until I heard somewhere online it was - or could be considered - a YA novel. Then I picked it up and read the blurb. It sounded interesting, but still I put it back. It didn't really leave my mind though. I wanted to read it, I wanted to be able to read it. And when doing research for the upcoming LGBTQ YA Month, this book was listed. Then I was sent an email from Simon and Schuster; they were republishing it, and it was also going to be coming out as a movie, and would I like a review copy? Everything in this paragraph happened over a series of a few weeks. Perhaps fate was telling me to give it a go, but I don't really believe in that kind of thing. I watched the movie trailer, and replied saying I'd like to review it. I picked it up Monday, a few days after receiving it, and coincidentally, this week is Banned Books Week. Perks is a banned book so, everything kind of happened around the right time. So I read it, finished yesterday, and oh my god, I have fallen in love! I don't think I have read a book so beautiful in my life.
First of all, I guess I shouldn't be so fearful of the word "classic" - so there are a few I struggle with, that doesn't mean I'll have problems with all of them! Perks was so incredibly easy to read and enjoyable, that my original intimidation just flew out of my head. I love Charlie, and I love this book!
Charlie is such a shy guy, and is so introverted. He is starting high school, he has no friends, and he is scared, so he writes letters to an anonymous person - "Dear Friend" - for someone to talk to, for someone to confide in, as he has heard this Friend "...listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist." (p3) The story is told through the letters that charlie writes to Friend as he experiences his Sophomore year.
The way Charlie views the world, his innocence, and the way he expresses what's normally kept internal, his thoughts and feelings - rather than it just being a narration, he's actually telling an anonymous someone - has captured my heart. He is so honest and real! He can be so unbelievably smart or he can seem a little naive and innocent with the things that surprise/amuse him, his voice just feels so authentic. And he is just so unbelievably thoughtful and kind, and very sensitive. From the very beginning of this book, it was set in my mind that Charlie is such a special guy. He's just one of those characters that you'll take into your heart from the very beginning, and won't ever allow to leave, because you adore him from page one.
The other characters in the book, especially Patrick and Sam, are great, but what's better is Charlie's relationship with them. From being someone who is so shy without any friends, who never had too many friends before high school as well, Patrick and Sam become very important to him. Step-siblings, they are both outside of the popular crowd, but not outcasts. They are seniors, so both two years older than Charlie - Charlie was kept back a year because of things that happened when he was younger - but they both take him under their wing and become fast friends. Although he seeks advice from them at times about things he's yet to experience, for their friendship, the age gap is never a problem and nor does it ever really feel like they are quite older than him. Charlie is just their friend, like and of their other friends, and is accepted in to their group with no questions. Both seem to feel a little protective of Charlie, not because of his age, but because of who he is, being so shy and such an outsider, and in their way, they show him what life is. It's the sweetest friendship I've probably ever read; it's clear how important both Patrick and Sam are to Charlie, but they really care about him too. It's heart-warming.
Generally speaking, Perks is a coming-of-age story, and it deals with all the things that are part of teenager life; first love, first sexual experience, experimenting with drink and drugs, dances and music, family issues, romantic issues, and the normal teenage angst, but it deals with it all in a sensitive way. I was surprised with how the drink and drugs was handled; it's not glorified, but nor is it condemned either, which I don't think I've read before. It just is what it is, Charlie experiments with drugs, and that's it. As Charlie is writing the letters, he doesn't get excited about it or think he's doing something bad, he talks about it like he talks about driving, it's just something that happened. But that's just who Charlie was.
As I said, generally speaking, this is a coming-of-age story, but it also covers a number of serious issues. Perks is quite short at 232 pages (my copy), but Chbosky manages to have a number of things seen through Charlie's eyes without the book feeling clunky or like it's been all crammed in. Either Charlie's experienced something, or it's something a friend has that is discussed with him,. Teen pregnancy, abuse, suicide, homosexuality, and a number of other subjects are covered, but dealt with in such a great way, through Charlie's unique view of the world.
Perks is an absolutely wonderful novel, a delight of a book. There is this speech towards the end of the novel made by Sam that will always stay with me, because it was just so powerful. Perks will break your heart, it will put the pieces back together again, and it will move your far beyond words. You'll cry, you'll laugh, and you will finish the book saddened that's ended, but uplifted by where Charlie finds himself. Perks might just be the best book I have ever read.
N.B. I will be writing a review of Perks with a different slant for LGBTQ YA Month. I just couldn't wait until then to rave about this book.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Children's Books for the review copy.
Published: 30th August 2012
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Books
Originally published: 1999, by MTV
Buy on Amazon US
Stephen Chbosky's Author Page