The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Published in 1999
Genre: Young adult novel, coming of age story, epistolary
“August 25, 1991
I am 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.”
It is statements like this that make Charlie, the protagonist and narrator of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, a likable and identifiable character. His story is told through a series of letters to an unnamed recipient that describe Charlie’s life during his freshman year of high school. Comprised of difficult subjects and, at times, brutal honesty, Charlie’s letters reveal the difficulty of finding one’s place within the microcosm of high school.
Charlie, an incoming freshman in high school, befriends seniors Patrick and Sam. The two are chain smoking step-siblings, and Charlie soon develops a crush on Sam. Charlie’s only friend from middle school committed suicide, so finding two close friends comes as a relief to the emotionally sensitive teen. As the story progresses, we see Charlie deal with a myriad of situations including his first relationship, which he goes into for the wrong reasons. He is called a “wallflower” because Charlie would prefer to observe other people living life rather than participating in it himself. He enjoys writing and comes under the tutelage of his English teacher.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age story, but finds itself apart from others in the genre partly due to the book’s narrative format. The novel is written as an epistolary, which means that the story is told through an exchange or use of written letters. Another standout aspect of the novel is the amount of difficult topics addressed within; masturbation, homosexuality, sexual and physical abuse, rape, suicide, abortion, and mental illness are all covered in the course of the novel. Music and books play a big part in Charlie’s life; the book takes place from 1991 to 1992, so Charlie makes mix tapes and references many bands of the era as well as those that came before. He is given extra reading by his English teacher, the likes of which include The Catcher in the Rye, Naked Lunch, and On the Road. Through each letter entry, we learn about Charlie’s mental health; there are oblique references to him becoming “really sad” and going to a psychiatrist in the past, but all of this information is filtered through what Charlie decides to tell the reader.
There are reading group questions at the end of this copy, which I found refreshing since I think this is an important book for teenagers to be exposed to. Chbosky really put in the work, making sure that Charlie’s writing improves throughout the story as he is mentored by Bill, his English teacher. Charlie has an endearing innocence and comes upon strikingly wise conclusions that sometimes fly above his own head. I will say that after multiple readings, there is a revelation at the end that still strikes me as sudden; I just don’t see enough evidence of it to reconcile the seemingly abrupt reveal, which does make me wish that there was more of a trail of clues upon rereading.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a short book, but its brevity should not be seen as a sign of lacking quality. The content of the novel and its messages are important and can have a positive effect on teenagers. I have read this book three times: once when I was a sophomore in high school, once after graduating, and now for this review. It is interesting to look back with nostalgia to those days in school when everything seemed so important and turned out to be fleeting or of little consequence. I don’t mean to disparage the importance of high school or the emotional connections created during it; I think I was a little too much like Charlie when I was that age, and it was refreshing to read a character who I could identify with at the time.
Verdict: 3 sign offs of “Love always, Charlie” out of 5
Recommended for: The nostalgic, young adults of high school age, people looking for their books to recommend books, those who enjoy novels written in epistolary format, and teenagers.
Not recommended for: Those under the impression that teenagers don’t deal with heavy subject matter, the easily offended or triggered, those who dislike novels written in epistolary format, or people who lack empathy.