The Perks of Being a Wallflower
This debut novel, first published in 1999, has been reissued purportedly because of its wild popularity, but probably because it opened as a movie in October 2012 and starred Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame. Still, it has shown up on the New York Times bestseller list, so someone must be reading it.
I went into the book eager to see what the shouting was all about, but I put down the novel thinking it’s been highly overrated.
The story of an over-dramatic, unbelievable fifteen-year-old freshman in high school is told through his letters to someone he calls a friend. Each letter explains some trauma in Charlie’s life and is supposed to help him regain normalcy after a life-changing incident in his past.
Charlie isn’t so much a wallflower as he is an oddity. He cries at the drop of a hat and has no friends since William, a boy he grew up with, killed himself. William’s death, however, isn’t what Charlie dwells on. Instead, Charlie is caught up with his Aunt Helen’s death since he and she were close.
But his psychiatrist says he must move on. In an effort to do so, Charlie hooks up with a group of seniors who seem to be as much outcast as he is. Chain-smoking Patrick, who says he’s gay, and his stepsister Sam become pivotal to Charlie’s bid for normalcy.
Through these two Charlie meets Mary Elizabeth, a determined vegan and Buddhist, who shanghaies Charlie to be her boyfriend, even though the emotionally stunted Charlie can barely handle friendship, much less something that has sexual potential.
At home, Charlie’s parents are normal, nice people, but his sister has issues. She’s in an abusive relationship with a boy and gets knocked up by him. Charlie’s older brother, a football star at Penn State, ignores his younger brother for college.
The biggest problem with the book is Charlie. Instead of being precocious and brilliant as he’s said to be by a doctor and a teacher, he comes across as emotionally and psychologically stunted. He worries about everything and consequently puts himself into an almost catatonic state, falling asleep in hazardous conditions in some cases.
I enjoy reading angst books, ones in which the central characters are battling horrific conditions yet are able to triumph over them to stay sane and become happy. Charlie’s story, however, was too strange to qualify as a satisfying angst saga. His friend William’s suicide, which I thought was going to be a catalyst in the story, was just a throwaway, almost easily accepted and ignored.
Oddly, small occurrences that should hardly matter loomed large in Charlie’s life. At one point Patrick dares Charlie to kiss the prettiest girl in the room. Since Charlie has been rhapsodizing over Sam even though he’s dating Mary Elizabeth, it’s no surprise that he kisses Sam. Mary Elizabeth is hurt and Charlie falls into deep dish angst. A few letters later everything is fine between him and Mary Elizabeth and Sam, almost as if the tempest in the teapot hadn’t happened.
The most unsettling thing about the book is that it reads almost as if Chbosky had a list of important teen topics at his fingertips as he typed. Set in 1999, the plot has Charlie reading a list of important books like Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, and other classics for his English teacher and then writing critiques of them. The reader, however, never gets to see Charlie’s outstanding essays nor hear his pithy remarks about the books. Other than the books’ titles and saying he wrote the essay, the books and the issues included in the books are moot.
While Wallflower was an easy, quick read, I’m stumped about why it got and is getting as much word of mouth approval as it is. Is it because MTV is publishing it? Is it because Emma Watson and a cast of cute and very young looking boys are starring in the movie? Is it because of its ersatz intellectual aura created because of Charlie’s reading list?
Whatever the reason, I can’t help feeling that Chbosky knew all the current issue buttons to push, but he didn’t know how to follow through and make the book deeper and more enjoyable when he pushed them.