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

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There are two things that attracted me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Firstly, it’s become something of a cult classic recently and that just makes me curious to know what all the fuss is about. In 1999, when this was published, I turned 16 and was just starting to turn away from the Young Adult novels that had dominated my reading for the past few years so I didn’t read this book then. Instead I was spending my time scratching Jared Leto’s name into my pencil tin with a compass, writing angstily (with lots of exclamation marks!!!) in my diary and hiding behind the school bike sheds to avoid the monthly cross country run. In some ways it’s nice to know that those days are well and truly behind me but occasionally, just occasionally, it’s nice to revisit them and reminisce. The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out as one of those books that might be a pathway into all that teenage nostalgia. Secondly, it’s an epistolary novel and god knows I love a novel written in letter format. They’re just so personal and chatty.

The letters in this case are written by troubled teenager Charlie who needs a stranger to talk to while he works through some of the big changes that are happening in his life. There’s a new school, new friends and the absence of old ones, bullies and parties, homework and so on and it’s all quite overwhelming. Charlie’s letters are readable and funny. To me he sounded a bit younger than his years but I can see why Chbosky did this; it’s Charlie’s naivety, I think, that draws people around him but itd also what makes him vulnerable. His problems are manifold but Chbosky treats them all sensitively and never once tries to suggest that Charlie might just grow out of all this one day. On the flip side, however, I did wonder whether there was just too much going on here: abortion, abuse, rape, homosexuality, domestic violence, drug taking, suicide, depression… I wasn’t a bit surprised Charlie found it overwhelming. Give the guy a break, Chbosky. The difficulty, of course, with a novel that tries to cram in so many big issues is that you just don’t get to address them with any depth. They lose their impact and you start to wonder whether this is all a bit manipulative, a cynical attempt at getting you to engage with the novel by forcing you to feel something.  It’s a shame really.

All in all, I had mixed feelings about this book. I love the fact that Chbosky treats some serious issues with real care and feeling and I really loved Charlie. But I wonder if I’d have liked it more if I’d read it back in 1999; reading it now it just fell a bit flat.

Apologies for the very brief review. I’m waaaaay behind at the mo and it’s already three weeks since I finished this one. I need to get back into the habit of blogging about books soon after I’ve read them. I’ll do better next time!

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