A lyrical and damningly direct coming-of-age story
There is a certain romance to reading a cult novel, particularly one that is deserving of the title. Though one can only imagine what Stephen Chbosky was like as a teenager himself, the author manages to capture the essential essence of the transitional period between child and adult in his first novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s a quaint coming-of-age story whose charm lies in how easily Chbosky manages to cut away cliché and leave the stone cold reality of teenage life.
It follows freshman Charlie, a shy, introverted boy labelled as a ‘wallflower’. He’s a boy who loves his parents and sister, despite the frequent family dramas. Charlie quickly falls in with a group of like-minded seniors though, forming a friendship that many readers will recognise as a need for older heroes to look up to. Patrick, a boy from Charlie’s shop class, is funny and openly gay but is dating a boy in the football team who refuses to acknowledge his sexual orientation. His half-sister Sam quickly attracts Charlie’s attention too. Here Chomsky becomes a bit unstuck; with her somewhat slutty reputation, at times he allows her to sound beautifully real, only for her to become two-dimensional again a few pages later. With these friends and role models, Charlie begins a trip into the dangerous adolescent territory of drugs, sex and rather charmingly, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
What makes the novel is the wallflower character, which is perfectly served by the structure of the book itself. Set out as a series of letters written by ‘Charlie’ (the name is only an alias) to an unknown receiver, the reader can catapult themselves with unconscious ease back into their own teenage years and remember that awkward stage where everything seems to set you apart from your peers (though in actual fact no one even knows you exist). Charlie’s voice also strongly complements this; his simplistic and honest phrases such as “Girls are weird, and I don’t mean that offensively” hammer home the point; Charlie is incapable of deliberately causing offence, even when talking to himself. However, this rather charming naivety lends Chbosky another weapon in his literary arsenal.
This charm, and the fact that Wallflower is Chbosky’s first novel, means that the shocking but rather abrupt ending can be forgiven. Because there is no build-up to this final twist, no indication as to what plagues Charlie’s life, except a brief mention at the very start of the book, it’s hard to take it with the seriousness it deserves. This, however, is the only bump in the plot. The memorable quotes – “We accept the love we think we deserve” – and nods to films, books and music ranging from The Beatles to Alice Cooper and Nirvana, mean that The Perks of Being a Wallflower are filled to bursting with aspects of teenage life. Chbosky does his best to integrate his own personal touches into the book. It is quite easy to see the influence of novels such as The Catcher in the Rye in his poignant reflections.
On the whole, it is a thoroughly deserving read. A read like a roller-coaster of emotion, flashing from hilarious to dramatic and heart-wrenching in the blink of an eye. For some nostalgic readers, or those caught in the throes of adolescent misery themselves, reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower may just feel like being part of something ‘infinite’.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is published by Simon & Schuster, 2009. ISBN: 978-1847394071