There are some books that you go on a journey with aren’t there? Now here I don’t mean the clichéd, if true, emotional journey that some books take you on (though this book had that), I mean the fact that you go on a journey where you like the book, love it, dislike it a bit, feel ambivalent about it, then like it before deciding you really, really liked and admired it. This is exactly what happened when I read, a first recommendation from a new friend (always potentially tricky), Stephen Chbosky’s debut novel ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which is soon to be the first film where Emma Watson, of Hermione Granger fame, makes her first big movie break from the Harry Potter franchise. But let’s get back to the book which is what this post is all about.
****, Simon and Schuster, 2009, paperback, fiction, 232 pages, borrowed from the library
‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is the experiences of Charlie as he goes through his first, rather turbulent, year at high school making friends, mainly step-siblings Patrick and Sam, that will help form the person he might become. Charlie is a little bit different and distant from everyone else at school and as I type that out I can almost instantly feel a familiarity to it, and the whole ‘coming-of-age’ novel, that would have led me to zone out on finding out or reading any more had I not been so highly recommended the book. As Chbosky does take what could be a story we have heard all too often before (can you tell I don’t tend to like coming of age novels on the whole) and make it seem new and quite different – rather like I felt Deborah Levy did with ‘Swimming Home’ and the ‘arrival of a stranger on a families holiday’ tale.
The way the novel is told is quite interesting as ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is written in the forms of letters from Charlie to a ‘Dear Friend’. We never really know who this dear friend is, though I tried and failed to be clever and work it out, and whilst the form of letter writing (rather like diary entries) is nothing amazingly new there is something confessional about it. Emotionally of course, and ever increasingly importantly as the letters progress, you do feel that to all intents and purposes Charlie is writing to you and, especially at the end without giving anything away, this is very moving. The fact you are being confided in and so very much in a characters head makes for rewarding, and sometimes uncomfortable, reading.
This is made all the more extreme in a way because Charlie is really a very insular young man. He is also somewhat detached which I have to admit started to irritate me a little bit along the way, he comes across very childlike one minute and then incredibly intelligent, philosophical and almost ‘gifted’ the next. I then pondered if it might be that he had some form of autism this may possibly be the case but by the end of the novel it makes complete sense, honest, and without giving too much away you do find yourself going ‘oh, that explains it all’. It’s a clever device though risky as it could put many readers off when it jars a little.
‘I walk around the school hallways and look at the people. I look at the teachers and wonder why they’re here. If they like their jobs. Or us. And I wonder how smart they were when they were fifteen. Not in a mean way. In a curious way. It’s like looking at all the students and wondering who’s had their heart broken that day, and how they were able to cope with having three quizzes and a book report on top of that. Or wondering who did the heart breaking. And wondering why. Especially since I know that if they went to another school, the person who had their heart broken would have had their heart broken by somebody else, so why does it have to be so personal?’
Apart from the slight irritation at the distance and narration of Charlie now and again I did get a little nonchalant, almost bored, in the middle section of the book. It is here that Patrick and Sam open Charlie’s eyes to the teenage/young adult world around them of sex, drugs and all that shebang. I did like the storyline of Patrick’s sexuality, obvious from the start but dealt with brilliantly, which adds another dimension to the book, his sister Sam is the obsession of Charlie’s thoughts however verged on cliché. So do some of the family set pieces, however there is a wonderful story of siblinghood between him and his only slightly older sister despite their rollercoaster of ups and downs.
I should mention too this is a very bookish book. Charlie has a rather special, not in a weird way, relationship with his English Literature teacher who helps Charlie a little through books (from To Kill A Mockingbird to The Fountainhead) he gives him along the way. I was quite envious I didn’t have a teacher like Bill, and it has made me want to try the books he recommends that I have not yet read. I always like that in a book don’t you?
‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is by no means a perfect book; it is a read that really pays off if you stick with it. There is a slightly stodgy middle phase yet it is one that having finished the book I can see why Chbosky did what he did, plus the end of the book with all its twists, turns and shocking revelations makes it utterly worthwhile reading. I am very glad that I was recommended this book so highly as I would probably not have given it a whirl, or stopped reading halfway through, and I would have been missing out on a book that I will be thinking about for quite some time.
Who else has read this? I believe it has quite a cult following so it will be interesting to see what everyone makes of the film. Which books have you read that you have liked, not liked much in the middle, and then enjoyed very much by the end?