Customer Review

289 of 397 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Indie Kids Say the Darndest Things, August 20, 2009
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This review is from: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Paperback)
The biggest problem I had with this book, and shockingly the most lauded aspect, was Charlie. He was the most unrealistic protagonist I have ever seen. Fifteen year olds who aren't evangelical christians know what masturbation is. They don't use the word genitals in casual writing. They say "really" not "very" or "especially". They use contractions, not the precious and oh-so-earnest alternative. They'd never call it "marijuana" if they were also smoking it. And they never, ever, use the term "grown-ups" with a straight face. Or, here, let me clarify:

Fifteen year olds who take drugs, like the Smiths, know the meaning of the word "infinite," drink in excess, have seen a rape, have had a friend commit suicide, and who have witnessed a whole number of other after school special scenarios, do not write this way. Autistic savants write this way, third graders write this way, and 25 year olds who want their characters to do their heartstring-tugging work for them, they too write this way.

When I was fifteen (only three years ago, by the way,) I will admit, I was like Charlie in a few ways. Socially awkward, smart, the prototypical "weird gifted and talented kid". I wanted so badly for him to be exactly like me, acerbic (or trying to be,) self-conscious to an absurd degree, wanting to be impressive, and eagerly clamoring for the "Prodigy" title. But somehow, Charlie manages to be brilliant (in fact, the most brilliant person one teacher has ever met! how sweet!) while being utterly clueless and guileless. His writing is mediocre, his intellectual grasp of the books he reads (and apparently writes stellar analyses of) is childlike, yet somehow he manages to spew out his profound observations on human nature in between descriptions of what Secret Santa is (embedded in quotes, as if he's talking to a foreign exchange student.) We are meant to believe that he is at once gimlet- and doe-eyed.

To be clear: Charlie is not a wallflower at all. When I think "wallflower," I think socially anxious, awkward, paralyzed by nerves. Charlie is antisocial, in the clinical sense of the word. It's not that he is scared of social interaction, it's that he doesn't have the faintest idea how it works.

But the implausibility doesn't stop there: somehow, this socially-retarded young Plato manages to befriend and enchant a group of worldly-ultra cool seniors who, in their pretentious (but retrospectively lame) 90's rituals (Eating at Big Boy, drinking brandy and reading dark poetry together, publishing-I'm serious- ZINES,) represent all the real-life Charlies, the ones who are suburbanite-edgy and troubled and wise and, most realistically, desperately want you to think that they are. Unlike Charlie, they listen to the Smiths not so much because they feel "infinite" when they hear Morrissey's whiny ballads, but because they so badly want you to know how much they love cool music, cool movies, and cool people. In their spine-crushing attempts to be spine-crushingly cool, they are more accurate depictions of real teenagers than Charlie. This is not to say that they are realistic either, as their relatively unpretentious speech and open-arms acceptance of Charlie is difficult to swallow, but they are certainly more real than our hero Mary Sue Caulfield. My, how convenient for Chbosky that Charlie can be called upon to be edgy, volatile, brilliant, simple, clueless, and even a weeping head case who goes suddenly catatonic. It all depends on what works best with Chbosky's newest ready-for-my-MTV-closeup scene. Some might say that this rollercoaster of emotions adds to the realism, is a normal part of teenage life, but these people don't remember the shocking banality of teenhood.

Let's not forget the after school special feel of it all, something that, unlike my observations on Charlie's unrealistic preciousness, has been noted by many other reviewers. I will only echo what they say: Very few teenagers go from complete naivete to drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll so quickly and so smoothly. I was reminded of horrible tripe like Go Ask Alice and Catherine Hardwicke's movie Thirteen, in which innocence is so quickly shattered and the lives of supposedly smart and responsible kids so easily and seamlessly muddied that we are left to wonder if the perpetrators of these fantastical coming-of-age lies have ever even been teenagers. But I digress...

And for the record, I am not averse to cute coming-of-age stories with a precious little smarty pants at their center. I loved Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and thought Oskar Schell was, if a bit unrealistic, at least charmingly so. I thought A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was quite good, mostly because it was so honest with itself, and I loved Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime. I might add that his protagonist actually WAS autistic, but somehow quite similar to Charlie in his bursts of uncharacteristic violence, simple speech, and utter lack of people skills. If you're looking for a better read than this one, I would suggest picking up one of those titles.

To be fair, there were some passages I liked. Occasionally I stopped my seething and identified with Charlie's passivity and mistaken idea that helping other lives along and watching still counts as living. And I did enjoy Sam's speech to him at the end about love and needing him to be there. But Charlie himself was too much, and his voice cast a heartbreakingly innocent, daisy-chained, Tiny Tim shadow over anything that could qualify as profound.

I think it's time to wrap up this little hatefest, so I'll end with some advice regarding who this book IS for, since it is certainly not for me.

If you loved Juno, if you enjoy twee pop, if you absolutely looooove mixtapes but weren't alive when people actually made them for each other, if you have Anne Geddes photographs in your home, if you're one of those people who constantly rambles on about how a song, or book, or movie "changed your life," then this book, this saccharine sweet little cupcake of a book, is singularly, and unfortunately, made for you.
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Comments

Tracked by 6 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 48 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 25, 2009 12:42:50 AM PDT
Laura Gale says:
this review "changed my life." well, not quite, but it is pretty on point about this utterly cringe-inducing trainwreck of a book. My friends all "loooved" the book so I read it. They actually use the word "hipster" when referring to themselves, so I guess I should have known better.

Posted on Sep 1, 2009 7:23:27 PM PDT
ChaosAkita says:
Wow, this is just a completely amazing work (as in your review, not the book). It's like...a zeitgeist or something.

Posted on Oct 11, 2009 9:21:47 AM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Nov 1, 2009 6:52:56 PM PST
You should be writing your own book. This review was a treat.

Posted on Nov 4, 2009 7:36:10 PM PST
Ellen Levkoy says:
This... is a masterpiece. Thank you so much for pointing out the whole masturbation bit. I knew I should have stopped reading when I read (I may be paraphrasing slightly as I thankfully do not have the book to quote from), "Masturbation is when you rub your genitals until you have an orgasm. Wow!" Wow indeed. I didn't think there was an author alive who would let such a stunningly, embarrassingly bad piece of writing see the light of day. As for the writing style, it threw me at first. I had heard great things about the book, and the kid's English teacher apparently considered him smart enough to independently tutor him without pay on his own time, so I expected a little better. But I quickly surmised that this was probably going to be kind of like the writing in Flowers for Algernon. Like probably the kid was smart but his writing and thinking skills lagged behind because his intelligence was never recognized before, but they would improve as he received the education fit for his intellect. As his writing continued to not get better and not get better, the horrific thought struck me: this is what the author thinks a smart kid writes like. These are the thoughts the author imagines must float through a smart kid's head. And really, that explains why the book is so bad.

Posted on Dec 3, 2009 2:50:44 AM PST
Thank you. I've been complaining about this book forever, and for all the same reasons!

Posted on Dec 16, 2009 11:40:00 PM PST
Jacob Bynum says:
Amazing review... you said exactly what I thought, now I'd appreciate if you left my head. Thanks for the suggested reads btw I'll definitely try picking one or some of those up.

Posted on Jan 22, 2010 1:07:50 PM PST
There's only one thing you did not consider, which is where fans of Tori Amos fit into all this. :)

Posted on Jan 23, 2010 9:03:36 PM PST
While you have valid points, I think you're missing one -- I actually think the point is that he's got Asperger's syndrome (mild autism). But of course since we're in his head, he doesn't recognize how different his mind works. But the clues are all there -- this got me over the awkward writing style.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 29, 2010 3:32:23 PM PST
Leah says:
Asperger syndrome is surrounded by ambiguity and controversy. There is some contention that it is psychosomatic, or perhaps incorrectly diagnosed to explain undesirable behavior. It's behaviorally diagnosed, and to my knowledge there is still no physical basis for its diagnosis yet. Which isn't to say that it's not a real disorder, or that some people don't suffer from it, but at this point we know very little and have no physical basis to diagnose or study the disease. So, to use it as an excuse for poor writing in a novel seems flimsy.
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