Even Wallflowers Bloom
(A Book Review of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
Meet Charlie. Not in the slightest one of the popular students at school, even though his brother is the school’s star football player. In no way he’s friends with the “cool” kids; in fact, one of his friends in middle school killed himself. Being popular or trying to belong with the coolest bunch at school is the least of Charlie’s worries as he deals with the loss of a good friend and the accidental death of a favourite aunt that have continuously haunt him. Now on his freshman year, Charlie only wants to make it pass high school. Naïve, introvert and awkward with people outside his family, Charlie is a wallflower, an observer on the sidelines of life while everyone around him tries to live theirs.
On the face of it, Stephen Chbosky’s seminal coming-of-age book published in the latter year of the 90s is nothing out of the ordinary. To its credit though, the book was one of the first to cover weighty themes and issues that have definitely become part and parcel of contemporary young adult genre such as suicide, depression, school bullying, domestic violence, molestation, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, drug use, sexual exploration and homosexuality. What made the book special and endeared it to most readers, not only in bringing to light realistic portrayal of the aforementioned matters, is in how it made it immediate and relatable through the narration and characterization of Charlie.
Written as a series of letters addressed to a “friend”, Charlie recounts the happenings, the ups and downs of his first year in high school. This narration is quite like a diary where the narrator can unload his feelings and observations, even humiliating details of his life, with no holds barred, without qualms. I think the genius of this device is in how it creates an instant bond between Charlie and his “friend”, or the reader for that matter, because of the frankness from the outset and by the characteristic snoopiness of the letter or the supposed feeling that one is in on a secret letting the latter’s guard down for the writer to be taken seriously and not be seen as just a whiny, silly teen with no one to talk to, here to blab his sob story. The first letter exemplifies this, and with a good, strong opening, it brings the right amount of emotional connection and the frame by which to view the protagonist and the book.
Seriously speaking, I’m way over my high school years and I find some of the circumstances in the book at variance with my experiences at that period in my life (more so culturally since I’m not an American). However, what makes it easy to feel connected to a book like Perks is that at one point in time there’s a Charlie in all of us: we try to find meaning as we battle with our internal troubles, a struggle made more confusing during adolescent years. Ultimately, its Charlie’s honesty and innocence that win the reader over despite flaws and mistakes committed. Through Charlie’s eyes the depiction of drug use and sexual exploration is neither glorified nor criticized; in fact, Charlie sees it as nothing different from getting his driver’s licence or driving around on his own for the first time. It’s something that just happens. By this we understand and come to adore Charlie as he is and to see the world, particularly teenage life, in the unique way as he has seen it.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower may not be a life changing book for me, still, it has a special place in my heart — and in my bookshelf. Stephen Chbosky’s book stands as a reminder of a time when a song, a smile and a special attention from a girl I had a crush on, and hanging out with friends just to fool around, have fun, means the world to me. It’s a tribute to our “glory days” when youth is a vast, sweeping horizon filling us with a sense of being boundless, immeasurable. Deep down the book depicts a metamorphosis of how one from being apart becomes a part of the crowd, a validation that even wallflowers bloom.
Book #8 for 2012
Published by MTV Books / Pocket Books
First Read in: February 04 to 05, 2012
Reread in: October 01 to 04, 2012