Up until now, I’ve only been reviewing television shows on here, and while I love writing about the incredible programmes that grace our screens, I think a book review is long overdue. Written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a compelling novel about a young boy trying to muddle his way through school, life, and love. I chose to write about this story for my first book review because it holds great meaning for me. While I often find myself becoming emotionally involved with many books that I read, this one really got inside my head in a way that others haven’t – it altered my way of thinking in a very positive way and I found it to be incredibly inspiring and moving, and it has now become one of my most treasured novels.
A definitively outstanding aspect of ‘Perks’ is its composition – it is transcribed in such an excellent way, with Chbosky going for the classic ‘journal’ layout, having the entire book being ‘written’ by the protagonist, Charlie, as a series of letters to an anonymous friend. The first-person narrative provides fascinating insight into Charlie’s teenage mind, thus allowing us to get an exceedingly firm grasp on his feelings and opinions, helping the reader to connect more with the character and empathise with the struggles he goes through. We get a very private, and at times unsettling, view into how Charlie’s experiences have shaped him into the person he is, and, on occasion, the tone of the novel hovers between refreshingly frank and painfully honest as we see Charlie battle the demons inside his head while also trying to deal with the stresses of starting high school and making friends.
In his letters, he vocalises his worries about people disliking him and thinking that he’s ‘weird’ but he admits to keeping quiet about these fears when asked about it by his parents – his aversion to attention then carries over into his interactions at school, thus earning him the title of ‘wallflower’. However, the book manages to steer clear of sounding pretentious or angsty when delving into sensitive areas such as these, and deals with everything in a way that is tactile and careful, while still retaining the feeling of ‘realness’.
A particularly poignant scene from the movie adaptation of the same name.
In terms of the actual writing itself, Chbosky has written the character of Charlie brilliantly, giving him a naïve sort of innocence that the reader can’t help but love; though his attempts at being what he deems ‘normal’ are sometimes misguided and often backfire, we can see that Charlie is simply a conflicted young man who is trying to figure out life just like a lot of people. This makes him likeable and easy to relate to as a main character, which I believe effectively spurs the reader on to cheer for him as the underdog.
The other characters are also brilliantly written, each with their own individual quirks and traits that become apparent when they each meet Charlie – while he begins the story as a frightened young boy who has been through a lot of hardship in the past, he starts his first year of high school and he soon discovers that life can actually be fun after he befriends Sam and Patrick, two students who are in the year above him, along with their eclectic group of friends. This then leads on to many first experiences for young Charlie – first kiss, first drink, first time having sex – some facets of the hedonistic lifestyle that some teenagers dream about. The character of Sam in particular is key in Charlie’s journey into maturity, as she is essentially his gateway into the world of ‘firsts’ – she is his first love, and seeing his feelings described so openly in his letters gives everything a certain rawness that is both addictive and entirely heart-breaking. Another character that holds a lot of weight throughout the novel is the aforementioned Patrick, who happens to be Sam’s stepbrother. Patrick experiences his own troubles throughout the story, his main concern being that the boy he is in love with is deeply in the closet and doesn’t want anyone to know about their relationship for fear of retaliation. This impacts Charlie because when tension arises between Patrick and his secret lover [Brad], Charlie soon begins to learn that having friends means he cannot hide himself away anymore, especially when his friends may require his help.
But don’t be swayed by the possibly familiar-sounding tropes and themes of this novel – this isn’t simply a typical coming-of-age story about a teenage boy at school. From the moment it begins, ‘Perks’ touches on some very sensitive topics, including abuse, bullying, and social ostracism. Each aspect is written respectfully, and Chbosky ensures that themes of a serious nature, like depression and mental health issues, are in no way glamourised [as is often seen in the media of today] or treated as less important than they are, something which I wholeheartedly appreciate.
Although the book deals with some heavy subjects, it ultimately ends on more of a high than a low note. The ending itself is bittersweet – while Charlie is still struggling to overcome the fear and pain lingering in his mind, he realises that he doesn’t have to do it alone anymore and can see hope on the horizon. I felt this to be an extremely stirring way to end the novel, and I’ve found that it has helped me to persevere whenever I’ve come across an obstacle that I thought I couldn’t overcome. With a well of beautiful and intricate quotes peppered throughout –
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
“There’s nothing like deep breaths after laughing that hard. Nothing in the world like a sore stomach for the right reasons.”
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”
– ‘Perks’ is a stunning read, and is an inspirational tale with some truly wonderful moments to behold. So, if you’re ever in a book shop and you see it on a shelf, buy it and take it home – snuggle up on the sofa with a hot drink and a blanket, and immerse yourself in the brilliance that is The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
*Side note: The movie adaptation is fantastic too, with a stellar soundtrack featuring the likes of David Bowie, The Smiths, and the classic ‘Come On Eileen’, by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Go check it out!
5/5 – There are not enough words to express my adoration for this novel.