I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a short novel segmented into a series of letters written by our protagonist, the clever and introspective Charlie, to the reader*.
Charlie’s a master of observation. Much like with the essays he writes about literary classics, he constantly tries to discern meaning in the events and people around him. His every action is a reaction.
What Charlie isn’t so good at is ‘participating’.
Challenged by his tutor to live in the moment and ‘engage’ with the people around him, Charlie soon befriends Patrick and Sam, a brother and sister who would become his closest friends and help him learn about love, self-worth and identity. Through observing the relationships between his friends and family, Charlie learns about himself, society and what it means to connect with other people.
‘I feel infinite.’
The Perks of Being a Wallflower reminded me of coming-of-age classics like The Catcher in the Rye and, to a lesser extent, The Bell Jar, though I came away from Wallflower feeling more positive and uplifted (despite it dealing with some pretty dark topics). Charlie is a far more positive protagonist than Holden, and far less stilted, and he looks into the characters around him in a positive way even though he hasn’t had it easy – his best friend recently killed himself, he’s ostracised at school and he suffers from a fair amount of anxiety stemming from the death of his aunt Helen. (I won’t tell you much more as it’s better to find these things out en route.)
She said I was the most sensitive boy she’d ever met, which I didn’t understand because really all I did was not interrupt her.
Something I wasn’t expecting from this book was the focus on women and how girls develop as a result of society. This theme is present throughout the story, and particularly demonstrates how girls – young, old, popular, activist – are taught to define their value based on the opinion of men and whether or not they’re seen as attractive. It seemingly can’t be helped. Similarly, it seems to demonstrate that men who assert their dominance through, more often than not, physical violence gain respect.
Over the course of the story Charlie witnesses adultery, abuse and even rape, and has to deal with the implications of the norms of society.
‘Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve.’
Despite mentioning a whole library of ‘intellectual’ books, and coming out with some very quotable comments (as the internet and the book’s cult following will readily confirm), The Perks of Being a Wallflower manages not to come off as pretentious. Instead, the writing feels honest and unaffected.
I’d also like to mention that I haven’t seen the film adaptation, so I don’t really know how similar the two are in feel and content.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a well-written, honest and colourful tale that deals with a lot of difficult issues without being depressing. Everyone should read this book, but it would be extra special to read it as an adolescent.
*Although I also like the theories that suggest he could be writing to Kurt Cobain or the kid – ‘Hey. My name is Charlie.’ ‘I know.’ – mentioned at the end.
The edition of The Perks of Being a Wallflower reviewed here was published by Pocket Books on 2 February 2009, ISBN: 9781847394071.