107 of 144 people found the following review helpful
Kind of Cheezy and Implausible, But Provocative
, November 5, 2005
This review is from: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Paperback)
Even though I have a bit of a penchant for the coming-of-age genre, it's unlikely I would have picked this debut novel up had it not been selected for my book club to read. That said, it's one of those paradoxical books that isn't objectively all that great, and yet managed to provoke fairly strong reaction in everyone I know who read it, and was a great springboard for conversation. As I later discovered, it's a very controversial book in that it's made its way onto assigned reading lists at high schools around the country, while also being one of perennially the most "challenged", according to the American Library Association. The story is told by Charlie, a 15-year-old boy starting his freshman year of high school in some medium-sized Pennsylvania city. From the very beginning, the reader learns he's got a whole host of issues, including the recent suicide of his only friend, and a recent spell at a mental facility following the death of a beloved aunt. The book takes the form of letters he writes to an unnamed person as a form of self-therapy. Presumably the format is intended to draw the reader into Charlie's world, to make the reader the confidante, but it's somewhat clumsily executed. From a stylistic standpoint, the letters often lapse into verbatim dialogue found in novels (and never in letters), and one suspects Chbosky would have been better off just writing it as a straight first-person novel.
In any event, soon after school starts and it's established that Charlie is utterly alone, he manages to befriend two seniors (a brother and sister). They cheerfully-and completely implausibly-take him under their wing and induct him into their established circle of "outsider" friends (the kind who go see Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday). The likelihood of a group of relatively cool outsider seniors actively tanking in an utterly awkward freshman stretched credulity too far for everyone I know who's read the book. But you have to accept it to continue and soon, despite being the titular wallflower, he is well on his way to learning about the classic themes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (although it's admittedly a bit of a stretch to call The Smiths rock and roll...). Much of the story revolves around how numb Charlie is to life, and his halting attempts to "participate" in life. Alas, his social skills are completely retarded, and while he is completely nice and full of love for his friends, his cluelessness to social norms continually confuses and thwarts him. And lurking behind all of this is some heavy duty emotional damage that has him always on the verge of bursting into tears, the underlying cause of which is revealed with a grand flourish at the end.
The book moves right along at a rapid pace, however if one steps back at the end, one realizes that Charlie has managed to encounter almost every teen issue out there in a kind of smorgasbord of afterschool special issues. There's drug experimentation, sexual experimentation, homosexuality and homophobia, abusive relationships, teen pregnancy, bullying, suicide, depression, social ostracization, and so on-basically every coming-of-age topic is covered in the span of a school year. It all becomes a bit much, and Chbosky would have been much better served focusing on only a few of these instead of throwing the kitchen sink at Charlie.
Charlie's account of all this is certainly likely to generate a great deal of empathy in certain kinds of readers (a number of people in my bookgroup reported having cried at times while reading it) and a certain degree of introspection on one's own teen years. However, elements of the story read strongly of author-fantasy, of being the kinds of things that Chbosky wishes had happened to him. For example, there's the cool Teach for America teacher who gives Charlie all these extra "advanced" books to read and eventually tells him that he's not just the most brilliant kid he's ever met, but he most brilliant person! And then there's Charlie's first kiss, set up in heart-rending perfection by the much older girl he's in love with, which reads like a textbook entry of what everyone in the whole world wishes their first kiss could have been.
So, it's not a great book, there's a lot of really cheezy bits, and one has to suspend a great deal of disbelief. And yet Chbosky does manage to pull off some very nice and sometimes quite funny writing about family, friendship, and figuring oneself out. The sexual themes are perhaps more than many parents might feel comfortable with, and what's especially likely to worry parents is that no judgments are made. (Of course, if judgments were made, it's unlikely the intended audience of teens would respond particularly well to being spoon-fed what they should think and feel.) Still, it struck most people I know as a good book for generating discussion with their own kids at age 13 or 14.
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