The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, published in 1999, remains a cult classic for young adult, coming-of-age novels. Written as an epistolary novel, Wallflower relies heavily on the young protagonist’s insights and narrative to weave a simple, emotionally stimulating story, resonating with teenagers from any generation. It will especially strike a chord with the introverted, socially awkward crowd as our protagonist epitomizes the role of being an outsider/outcast. Wallflower is a probing piece of literature that readers can relate to while finding it heart crushing and comforting.
Wallflower is a compilation of letters that Charlie, our protagonist, begins writing at the start of his freshmen year in high school in a Pittsburgh suburban. Charlie writes to an anonymous reader in hopes of expunging his tumultuous feelings. He suffers from two traumatic experiences: Michael’s suicide, his middle-school friend, and his Aunt Helen’s death. It’s Charlie’s teacher Bill who first sees Charlie as an extremely intelligent boy, and Bill unconventionally starts to offer Charlie books to read, every English lover’s secret fantasy back in high school. It’s okay to admit it.
Charlie then meets his senior friends: Sam and Patrick. Charlie develops a crush on Sam and over the novel learns he really loves her. Patrick, Sam’s brother, is also gay and secretly dating Brad, the closeted gay football player. Charlie, Patrick, and Sam form a lifetime bond. Through the course of the novel, we see how Charlie thinks and responds to a series of familial and romantic drama while he’s also contending with his deep-rooted introversion and repressed past.
Contrary to most post-modern, mainstream YA seeded with martyr archetypes, dystopian plots, and even economical hardships, Wallflower is surprisingly ordinary in the way it presents its setting and characters. It’s fateful to reality. Part of this is due to Wallflower’s format, and its reliable narrator: an honest, sometimes brittle, unsure voice whose confessions carry anguish, shame, frank humor, and liberation. Wallflower’s discussion on alcohol, drugs, and sex doesn’t steal the show. Chbosky structures the plot by relying on the protagonist’s thoughts and the novel’s dialogue instead of having drugs and sex influence the overarching plot. Drugs and sex are witnessed but not intricate in the novel’s plot. Chbosky prevents the novel from turning into a fogged filled drug montage. It’s a series of moments in life that can either fragment into fiction or be a mirror for us.
Despite Charlie being the protagonist and narrator, he often removes himself from the story and devotes most of his time writing about his family and friends. Charlie’s noninvolvement in the story, his inactive almost passive position, the wallflower, has us warily trying to learn who he is as a character. This defines Charlie, however. Even Sam notices this behavior as “not normal.” He’s empathetic and vicariously lives through his friends’ lives, not out of some emptiness in his own life but because he’s intrigued by how people’s reasons don’t necessarily align with their behaviors. If anything, he wishes the best for his friends, but it’s when he’s trying to learn what he’s feeling does he notice his own insecurities. He learns what he wants, which is to make his friends happy, thus, distinguishing Charlie’s motives and reasons. But since Charlie buries his attention into other people’s lives, this aids in developing the other characters, giving us real, young adults.
Adopting a narrative into an epistolary novel might wan on the creativity aspect of the novel, but it certainly better illustrates a person’s life. Chbosky’s writing is contained in a snow globe: simple, closed, but at times, fisheyes what we’re reading. We know exactly what is going on, but when Charlie’s feelings turn thick; the writing reflects these moments with candor yet ambiguity that has us reevaluating the writing’s density. Chbosky ends up creating a pensive work of literature than originally thought to be.
And when Wallflower ends, it’s a finale! It fills you with completeness and a reread compulsion. It’s a story waist-deep with dialogue, chopped with no-answer questions, and unsaturated with action-packed passages (okay, except that one.) It’s even reluctant to leave you 100% satisfied since this is just the start of Charlie’s life in high school. He still has three years left and the novel leaves that impression. Of course, most endings are just beginnings.
Rating: 4.6 out of 5
P.S. – A film adaptation came out a few years ago. In fact, I watched the film first before picking up this novel, and I have to say, please read the book. The film isn’t bad. That’s not what I’m saying here. I can’t recommend this book enough, and while the film was great, something was lost in the process of adapting the novel to film. The camera lenses influences our perception of it giving us more of an objective view versus a personal one. Now I’m not one of those people that are shouting until their lungs explode, “the book was better!” but in this case, I’m going to have to insist you read the book because there’s just a different effect. The book takes you where the movie can’t.