Warning: The following review contains some spoilers for the book in question. If you have not read it yet you might want to before continuing forward.
Peter Parker? He’s Midtown High’s Only Professional Wallflower!
-Some girl, Amazing Fantasy #15
In 1999, a fellow by the name of Stephen Chbosky had a book of his published entitled The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.
I had previously heard of Chbosky through making the most mediocre film of all time with 2005’s Rent, and then, according to legend (because lord knows I’m not watching it), topping that with 2017’s Beauty And The Beast. His entire film career seems to be Hollywood going “we’re all gray blobs,” before he responds “but I’m grayer and blobier.”
Still, his novel was a big deal when it was published. It made it on The New York Times bestseller list, has been censored a number of times for its use of homosexuality, sex in general, drugs, and many other controversial topics all around causing the book to generate a large amount of conversation when it was first released. Remember, this was a time where the most mature interpretation you got of these issues was from Kevin Smith — not hating on Smith though, he’s great.
But does the book still hold up? Well, recently I wanted to figure that out for myself, especially considering I had never read Perks Of Being A Wallflower when I first asked that question.
So is there something for modern teens? Or is it better left in the past with the generation that gave us PCU and Chasing Amy? Well, it’s kind of complicated.
I feel like the best place to open is the writing. While not awful, the writing in this novel has a special kind of occasional awareness that does truly make it memorable — albeit in a Plan 9 From Outer Space way and not a Christmas Carol way.
Here are some of my favorite quotes you’ll find in your copy of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower:
Do you know what “masturbation” is? . . . I thought that in those movies and television shows when they talk about having a coffee break that they should have a masturbation break.
. . .
“What would you like to eat.”
. . .
Brad wouldn’t even let Patrick hold him, which seems rather sad to me because if I had sex with somebody, I would want to hold them.
All three of these quotes come from the first quarter of the book. And this brings me to both the biggest positive and negative of the book, just how memorable some of the writing is.
The book overall has a large number of quotes that stick with you, even if not always for the right reasons. I could find the pages of all these quotes almost exactly for this review, in part because I came back to them for a quick laugh quite a few times.
However, this has the effect of making the dramatic moments much harder to get invested in. For instance, it’s harder to hear about Charlie — the main character and one narrating this book — talk about Brad’s father beating him brutally and take it seriously when he also has lines like “I don’t think I could handle [my sister] pretending to have sex with a large stuffed Gumby.”
This is not me saying I wasn’t invested, I was. However, the tone switch of seeing this child go back and forth from talking about the molestation of his crush or the abuse of his friend to that night’s showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show — which is like his favorite thing ever going by how often he goes to it — is slightly disorientating.
I should also note something here: Yes, I understand this is supposed to be “realistic.” In real life, people aren’t just sad or happy all the time, I get it. However, in real life, time between sad and happy moments tends to go quite a bit slower than they do in this book. In part because this book takes place over slightly under a year and yet can be read in about a day.
This is not the fault of Chbosky, as I assume he wouldn’t want to write something the size of Lord Of The Rings for a book about some kid’s Freshman year of High School. However, this is why picking a consistent tone is important in writing anything, especially a novel.
What is the tone of Perks Of Being A Wallflower? Somber and serious? Well, the letters starting by talking about masturbation kind of ruin that. Upbeat and hopeful? Well, the constant references to molestation kind of ruin that. Youthful? Then why is the main character reading novels no High School freshman would give a shit about — unless they’re objectivists I guess. It’s just a mess.
Charlie, the main character of the book, is a good representation of both the strengths and the weaknesses of it.
He’s a High School freshman writing letters to an unnamed “good listener,” about his day-to-day life. (And his masturbatory habits) I assume this author wants us to think of this kid as your average High School freshman, I say I assume because it is near impossible for me to do such a thing.
Charlie does not strike me as the average High School Freshmen, instead, he reminds me more of an early-20’s Christopher Hitchens. While reading this book, all I wanted to do was read Letters To A Young Contrarian instead.
Now, this is not a bad thing by itself, at least if your someone like me who would much rather read Hitchens than a High School Freshman, but it is a slight issue in terms of the reliability this book pushes.
This is seen with the odd amount of detail some events get. At the party, Charlie describes a couple where the girl is talking about feminism or something and the guy is I guess just staring at his girlfriend’s boobs. That example sticks out as something that no person would remember well enough to write down in a letter about this event that they would mail to someone else, especially at a party where the “big reveal” happens (we’ll get to that in a minute) and where he’s officially declared a wallflower.
It’s a minor thing but it feels like the author didn’t truly want to go above and beyond. That’s fine, most people don’t. However, may I ask why the author then decided to have the letter structure in the first place? There was honestly no reason for it and all it does on the few occasions I did notice it was make me feel like this author has no idea how a teenager would write letters.
Okay, let’s talk about the big surprise. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower was well known when it came out for its pro-homosexual themes.
Early on, we find out that the school quarterback Brad is in a gay relationship with Charlie’s friend Patrick. This is treated as a big deal for a handful of pages, and is still a big deal throughout the entire book. However, I really didn’t see it as some kind of surprise. Brad was, at most, mentioned a handful of times as the school quarterback. I guess he has a girlfriend, but I still couldn’t say I knew anything about him that would make him being gay a big surprise — I guess outside of him being on the football team.
In fact, I was more surprised when it turned out that Patrick was gay. At least we thought he was in a heterosexual relationship with Sam for about two pages — it’s not because Sam is his sister, but it’s still something.
If normalization was the end goal, I guess this could work. But I’m sorry, the way this book treats Brad being gay does not line up with how we saw Brad beforehand — we didn’t.
In all fairness, this is just an aspect of the book that hasn’t aged the best. Obviously, back in 1991 — hell, even in 2000 as that same year 20/20 ran a story about Corey Johnson (now a member of the NYC City Council) coming out as gay while being the captain of the Masconoment Regional High School football team — this would have been a big deal, but this simply does not hold the same impact it once did. That is not the fault of the author or anything, however, it simply has not aged with time.
To be honest, from a narrative perspective, Brad’s homosexuality comes off as confusing. After his father finds out and more or less abuses him to get him to stop, Brad and his friends later heckle Patrick for being gay. Wait, did Brad tell his friends Patrick was gay? If so, did they ever ask how Brad knew Patrick was gay? If so, then did he answer it was because Patrick had anal sex with him? If so, this book is kind of stupid.
I’m sorry, but Patrick is the character I cared much more about out of these two. In fact, I wanted to see his side of the story way more than I wanted to see Brad’s. Do his parents know he’s gay? What do they think of the situation? We’re never told.
Patrick feels like a character, Brad really doesn’t. He feels like stock quarterback #543 except also gay. Maybe that was surprising back in the day, but it really doesn’t hold up anymore.
Figured I should just wrap up the characters here real quick.
Charlie has a girlfriend, but I remember nothing about her. She more than likely had a name, I’ll give her that much. The most she does is have sex with Charlie and Charlie dating her causes some awkwardness with Sam — as if that situation wasn’t awkward already.
Sam is actually one of my favorite characters in this book. Both her and Patrick do a good job serving as mentors to Charlie, although his romantic feelings for Sam cause some issues. He even has a dream of having sex with Sam early on, but can’t pursue her because not only is she not interested and has a boyfriend but is also too old.
His English teacher, Bill, is not all that interesting of a character. The most he does is give Charlie some new books to read every now and again, which doesn’t really do much. It’s not as if he starts referencing these books in his day-to-day life or takes some kind of lesson from that — he says that for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Actually, he really doesn’t, he just goes to it every chance he gets and takes his sister to it at one point. I just thought that quip was funny.)
Oh yeah, let’s talk about the non-GMO kale-fed elephants in the room known as Charlie’s siblings. The people Charlie don’t even give names, and I don’t blame him.
His brother is basically just Brad but straight, removing the one interesting thing about Brad. He also has a cheerleader girlfriend who is a fan of transcendentalists, which I totally believe! You think I’m joking, don’t you? No, Charlie’s brother seriously says his cheerleader girlfriend’s favorite book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Is the twist that it turns out her father is Ted Kacynski? I’m sorry, but when I read that line I couldn’t help but put the book down and start laughing at the idea that a quarterback would be dating a cheerleader who is a fucking transcendentalist.
(Note: This section is not meant to insult real-life cheerleaders who also happen to be transcendentalists. I can do that well enough already without denying your existence. The point is I don’t view that as something that would have been likely in 1991, nor would it be likely today. The context of the scene was the main reason I believed Charlie’s brother was lying. At that point, Charlie’s sister was going after him for dating a Cheerleader because she’s a radical feminist who hates Cheerleading. He also said it in the most exposition way possible, again, like he was making it up on the spot and just thought of a book that sounded like something a smart person would read.)
His sister is also a radical feminist hippy who is dating a normal hippy who abuses her. I actually find this story kind of interesting, as Charlie starts off not knowing if he should tell someone or not. He then tells Patrick, Patrick tells his parents, and they both lie about breaking up — what I’m saying is nothing comes of it considering all of that happened in the first fifty pages.
Most of the other characters are quite bland all things considered but a few of them shine out. The only ones besides Charlie I can say I find all that interesting are Patrick, Sam, and Charlie’s sister for a while. It commonly feels like these characters are more placeholders for events to happen around than fleshed-out friends of Charlie.
I’ll end this review by talking about the ending of this book, a bullshit twist that didn’t improve anything.
Throughout the book, Charlie sometimes talks about his Aunt Helen. A woman who lived with his family for a handful of years, let him stay up to watch Saturday Night Live, and died in a car crash on her way to get him a Christmas present. We even see Charlie visit her grave a couple of times and see him clearly being upset his aunt isn’t around anymore.
It turns out she molested him.
It’s not directly said in the epilogue, just kind of clearly implied as something he repressed that was brought back when he tried to kill himself by — watching television naked? I don’t know!
Everything about this bothers me. There was no reason for it, we already have a different character who was molested, a character in an abusive relationship, and a character with an abusive father. Is that really not enough? Is something just in the water in this town?
That’s something else I need to bring up. Most of the harsher stuff can be forgiven as “realistic.” We’ll ignore that there’s not actually any psychological basis for memory repression, most people still don’t know that and I’ll assume even fewer people knew that back in 2000. But I’m sorry, I can’t for the life of me buy that everyone in Charlie’s life is shit for reasons that are just outside of his control.
According to Darkness To Light, around 10% of children are sexually abused before the age of 18. This means that the odds of Charlie not just being molested but knowing one other person who is — as he does in this novel — is 1%. This isn’t realism, it’s just making characters suffer for no reason.
And worst of all there’s no hint of it throughout the book. I’ve read a couple of examples of “foreshadowing” but all of them either have simple explanations or fall flat. In a story like this, some signs should exist and be at least noticeable enough to where the audience could realistically look back at the book and expect something like this.
The point is there was no reason to do this outside of just giving Charlie more trauma in the last twenty pages.
Overall, it may sound like I’m bashing the book, and to some extend I am. However, this does not mean I would not recommend The Perks Of Being A Wallflower to a large extent.
The goal of the novel was to start a conversation, and to that extent, it has done a better job than the vast majority of novels in the Young Adult genre. However, that does not mean the novel is perfect, in fact, it is pretty far from that.
While not all that conversation is positive, that still doesn’t mean the reader is not worthwhile. Personally, I was still invested in the story and enjoyed my time with the characters.
Most of the issues I have brought up over the course of this review are not major ones but instead things I noticed when I stepped away from the book, not things I noticed while reading. So that should be worth something, I hope.
I enjoyed this novel, is what I’m getting out. Despite its flaws I found the experience quite enjoyable and would recommend giving it a read if you haven’t already.