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Review: Stephen Chbosky’s ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’

You may be planning on seeing the film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, directed by the book’s author, Stephen Chbosky; but first check out the novel before you go see it on the big screen.

The novel takes the form of letters written by a teenage Charlie, the titular wallflower, and sent to an unnamed older person, whom Charlie doesn’t know. The recipient being older means you don’t have to be a fellow teenager to enjoy the book; the letters are written to you, see, and work better if you’re a little older. Charlie explains that he is “writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have”, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the book. Charlie is sensitive, neurotic, and just loves writing these confessional letters to a stranger.
The first letter reveals Charlie is about to start high school, a prospect which terrifies him. As a shy, lonely and bookish sort, cliché dictates that he has to be into The Smiths (although we know he is a true believer rather than simply striking a pose, as he name-checks Asleep, one of their more powerful and lesser known songs, and discovers them through a mixtape a boy makes for his sister). Unlike the usual milquetoast-type sensitive narrator, though, Charlie can actually fight, and does so when a bully starts hitting him. Despite winning, he cries, meaning that “[s]ome kids look at me strange in the hallways…I guess I’m pretty emotional.”

Emotional is an understatement. Basket-case would be nearer the mark. Indeed, it hasn’t been an easy life for Charlie, and friends seem to be a bit thin on the ground. Luckily, he falls in with a group of older kids, and also has a cool English teacher to encourage him. The usual ‘firsts’ then get ticked off (first house party, first masturbation, first drug experience, first crush), and Charlie gets to live more of a life. There are also some meditations on family that will probably ring true for a lot of people, e.g. “I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other.”

As his first year in high school progresses, it gradually becomes apparent that there may be more to Charlie’s idiosyncrasies than we’d initially suspected. By the end of it, he’s seen identity crisis, violence, heartbreak, and speculated on the ceaseless marching of time and the perception of suffering. It’s all fairly compelling, as Charlie is an earnest and likable narrator. At one point in the book, in his friend’s pickup truck on the way to his first party, he says that he feels infinite. Give The Perks of Being a Wallflower a read, and see if you can remember a time when you felt infinite, too.

Adam Brelsford

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