The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I’d never read this best-selling coming-of-age story, first published in 1999. It has more than 15 thousand reviews on Amazon, so I’m not sure if what I say will add anything new to the discussion, but here goes:
Set outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it’s the story of Charlie, a fifteen-year-old boy, as he navigates his first year of high school. In epistolary format, Charlie writes to an unnamed friend about his feelings and experiences. Although he is awkward and shy, he makes friends with seniors and twins Patrick and Sam (a girl) and they introduce Charlie to their friend group. Charlie immediately develops a crush on Sam.
At school, Charlie’s English teacher, Bill sees something in Charlie and gives him extra reading assignments, encouraging him to talk and write about the books he reads. Charlie’s impressions of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Peter Pan, A Separate Peace, This Side of Paradise, The Fountainhead and many other classics are regular mentions in his letters.
That’s the basic structure of the story, but there is much going on beneath Charlie’s day-to-day experiences. Readers will pick up on hints of Charlie’s emotional instability as he talks about his family life, his college freshman brother, high school senior sister, their parents and the death of his Aunt Helen.
Bill tells Charlie he needs to participate in life and Charlie does his best, but he prefers to be on the sidelines, observing his new friends at parties, where he earns the “wallflower” name. Charlie witnesses the usual teenage drama, including new romances and breakups. He feels the best when he’s with Patrick and Sam, driving and listening to music, a feeling he describes as “infinite.”
Charlie is an unusual mix of innocence, insight and emotion, and likable for displaying these vulnerabilities. But, although he’s a regular at parties, gets a girlfriend, and frequently drinks, smokes pot and tries other drugs with his friends, he yields to their feelings, doing what he thinks they want him to do.
Friendships break, shift and change during the school year and Charlie is either falling or reaching a new understanding of his unexplained feelings. When his friends graduate, he must confront changes and his sophomore year without them.
I enjoyed reading this story, which is a curious mix of optimism and angst. What I liked most about it is that the characters, even when they face overwhelming problems, share resilience and a resolve to keep moving forward.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a frequent title on lists of banned books because of its mature content covering sexuality, drug and alcohol use, and physical and sexual abuse. Some readers may object to the content, although I think it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of adolescence.
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