Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

April 17, 2013
Author: Stephen Chbosky
Publisher: MTV Books/Pocket Books
Year: 1999
ISBN: 9781451696196
Rating: ★★★½☆
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The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the coming-of-age story of a lonely, shy, volatile 15-year old called Charlie who is both happy and sad and is trying to figure out how that could be. This is an epistolary novel where the chapters are a series of letters that a disillusioned and emotionally vulnerable Charlie writes to his diary imagining it to be a person, having heard that it listened and understood and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though it could have. Due to this introspective format, we get an intimate view into Charlie’s mind.

Charlie, though a 15 year old is mentally a prepubescent boy. He is ill-informed about sex and is eccentrically introverted.  He is a social outsider and brings with him a clear-sighted quality that cuts through the gloss and superficiality that surrounds high school interactions. He is a wallflower, he sees things, he keeps quiet and most importantly, he understands. His distance from the status quo culture gives him unique insights into the contemporary condition given that his life story is a running commentary on teenage social issues like date rape, drug abuse, sexual deviation, homosexual experimentation and pervasive consumerism. He narrates this with a calm detachment that seems slightly unnatural. But for the most part he is sensitive, highly intelligent and occasionally charming in an entertaining narrative mix.

Though initially a loner and a crybaby, he is soon befriended by a gang of older hipster kids who turn his world topsy-turvy. It is with these older people that he experiences the exhilaration of growing up in bad company. He falls in love, discovers music, smokes his first cigarette, smokes dope, drops acid and learns how to be social. His benefactors are a motley crew populated by fringe members of society; homosexuals, punk rockers and hyper-intellectuals. Charlie is particularly infatuated with a stepbrother stepsister duo; happily gay Patrick and enigmatic Sam.

Chbosky’s writing is simple and precise and is mostly easy reading. The plot is engaging and we are immersed in Charlie’s world for all those hours we spend with the book in hand. Charlie’s world, though rich, textured and filled with detail was sometimes a little too whiny for my taste. What brought down my final rating of the book is that it did not stay with me after I’d finished it. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not the contemporary Catcher in the Rye (which is referenced multiple times) that it is reputed to be.  It is not a timeless ageless classic that somewhere stops being just about a lonely, introspective teenager and starts addressing all of humanity. The Perks of Wallflower is a well-written Young Adult novel which captured a year in the life of young Charlie and with it, the popular imagination successfully. 

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