24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Abby Reads: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Gallery Books, 1999, 213 pages
YA Realistic Fiction

Charlie is starting high school. Charlie has a lot of doubts. Charlie is about to learn a lot about himself and the world. With the help of an English teacher, Charlie decides it’s time to reinvent himself as someone who “participates” as opposed to someone who observes. The first step is to make some friends. Writing to an unnamed “friend,” Charlie details the sequence of his growth and the lives of the people around him.

Well, finally. I know, I know, it took me far too long to get around to reading this one. But it’s happened at last! I’ll say up front that I wasn’t quite as enchanted by it as everyone else I seem to know and their grandmother, but that’s okay. I agree that IMG_2988it’s a pretty important book — sure, literature, even — and not a bad read. If you know anything about Perks at all, you probably know it deals with a lot of heavy material. As someone who hasn’t been subjected to most of these heavy and unfortunate events, I’ll venture to say that I feel Chbosky dealt with them with sensitivity and honesty, which can be a difficult balance to strike. (I’ll emphasize again, though, that I’ve never suffered from the more severe things that occur in the book and, while I saw Chbosky’s handling as appropriate, others may find it insensitive or triggering which is totally valid.)

Chbosky has also clearly mastered Charlie’s voice and its evolution within Perks. While I can’t say that I’m familiar with any of other Chbosky-material, it seems to me Charlie has a very distinct and deliberate voice. I got the sense that Chbosky may always use this voice in other writing — that is, the voice is very much his and while it’s strong, unique, and evident within the text, it makes him out to be a sort-of one-trick-pony. But, being unfamiliar with his screenplays and such, I can’t say that for certain. And I digress — this review is about Perks, not Chbosky’s entire body of work.

There are three particular points that I’m interested in discussing here, but given that it would involve spoilers, I’ll refrain. Instead, if you’ve read the book, I’ll just encourage you to think about Bill (what did you expect of his relationship with Charlie? I was completely surprised by his motives), the recipient of Charlie’s letters (does identity matter?), and Charlie’s main trauma (nothing in particular, and I understand why Chbosky included it the way he did, although it didn’t fit in with the way I understood the story was “working”). Obviously Perks gives readers a lot to think about.

And it’s partly that which has made people so angry about it. In their handy list of frequently challenged books, the ALA has reported Perks as being challenged with dizzying frequency over the years. This comes as no surprise — the book, intended for and marketed a young adult audience, contains anything and everything various groups might find offensive or distasteful (this is not to say I agree with any of them): drugs, sex, rape, incest, homosexuality, feminism, underage drinking, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Shall I go on? I’m not one for censorship, though from a literary perspective, I thought Chbosky put more on his plate than he could handle. While each of these topics are touched on (and some repeatedly), the sheer volume of heavy topics makes it difficult to digest any one of them within the context of the book. And with Charlie’s sometimes-vague prose, it’s sometimes hard to even know what, actually, the issue is. None of these issues are more or less valid than any of the others, but by cramming them all into such a small book, their treatment is severely diminished.

A lot of people have, in my memory, compared Perks to The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I can see the similarities and the influence, but the books have a very different atmosphere. Where Holden Caulfield of Catcher is cynical, Charlie is curious and hopeful. This makes all the difference.

Generally not a bad read, but not one to rush through — read, digest, repeat.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

2 Comments

  1. I think it’s interesting — I read this book in high school and absolutely hated it. I thought the writing was clunky and the situations were unbelievable (because I was such a goody-two-shoes and didn’t think that people really had parties like that, or that anyone’s Mom would let them go to RHPS since mine wouldn’t). Then I read it again a few years ago because I wanted to see the movie, and I thought it was great.

    I’m not normally a big reader of YA fiction, and even when I was a young adult I generally liked “adult” books better. But I wonder sometimes if the YA/Adult Fiction distinction is really useful for the vast majority of books. What do you think?

    • abbyrhargreaves

      February 16, 2015 at 2:53 pm

      I totally know what you mean about finding the situations unbelievable because of your own experiences. I felt the some way in some instances but found myself thinking about people I knew who had either told me stories like the ones in the book or who I just knew enough about to imagine they’d experienced some of these scenarios. I’ve also fallen into that trap before during RA training one year, in which we watched a film about these twin brothers(? one of them might have been trans* so I may be incorrectly gendering here, but it’s a fault of my memory, not an intentional swipe) experienced a number of things including coming out as gay, rape, abuse, losing family members in a violent way, etc. And during the discussion I voiced my confusion at us watching it because I literally could not digest that any one individual could go through so much — so what was the point of watching it? We’d never encounter anything so severe, clearly.

      My comment was not received well, and it shouldn’t have been. The point is, that experience has kind of made me shut down the disbelieving part of me. Plus, I think Chbosky does enough to make the rest of the book really real (the whole epistolary approach, the voice, some particular lines that are things that I’ve thought myself, etc.) that it’s grounded to the point where a few extreme situations don’t make it unrealistic.

      I read almost exclusively YA fiction. I haven’t a had a whole lot of luck with “adult” fiction (unless we’re talking classics). The few adult books I’ve picked up are always so melodramatic to me with affairs and murder instead of just affairs and murder, if that makes sense. Maybe I’ve just being picking up the wrong books — obviously a lot of my issue comes down to writing style. In general, I’ve found books for the YA audience try harder when it comes to writing style — maybe that’s a symptom of trying to “compensate” for the intended audience? I wish there was a way to make only young adults be aware of the distinction so they can find books about people their age. I think it’s really important to see yourself in stories and literature when you’re an adolescent/teen/new adult. However, I wish adults weren’t able to see the divide because so many of them miss out on really great books because they’re “just YA.” Or they’re embarrassed to read books “intended” for YA audiences. But I also think the divide is important as adult books may deal with more adult themes. Sure, Perks has a lot of those adult themes, but they’re dealt with in a way that is appropriate for a YA audience, whereas writers of adult fiction may not have that perspective in mind. This isn’t to say some young adults couldn’t handle the treatment of any given theme, but having the opportunity to be aware that the treatment is different and may not be as comfortable is important.

      Thanks for your comment, Monica!

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