Monday, July 1, 2013
Book Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Every stage of life has its challenges, it's true, but I think those of us who survived the pre-teen and teenage years tend to forget just how intensely we felt our emotions during that time, how we consciously tried on various personalities and cliques in a desperate effort to pin down our tenuous sense of who we wanted to be, how lonely we felt on such a frequent basis. The benefit of a few years of perspective can make the daily adolescent roller coaster seem preposterous, if not mildly contemptible, to some adults. I don't think most grown-ups intend to cause youth pain, but reacting to anyone's distress with indifference, even well-meaning, minimizing indifference, is a perfect recipe for distance and separation.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower captures this gulf between teens and adults, as well as the turbulence of adolescent identity and emotion. Charlie, who is just starting high school, writes a series of letters to an unnamed, but - we assume - sympathetic recipient "because she said you listen and understand". This epistolary format is intimate and reveals Charlie's motivations and confusion in a way I don't think any other format could have.
Right from the start, Charlie describes the tumultuous nature of life and particularly the teenage years: "I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be." Over the course of the book he deals with the suicide of a friend, the homosexuality of another, grief for a favorite aunt who passed away, alcohol and drug abuse, and the beginnings of his own sexual exploration while navigating the highs and lows of family relationships and budding friendships.
I appreciated that his family, while not perfect, was there for him and expressed their love through both words and actions. Too often parents and siblings, especially older siblings, are made out to be the villains in adolescent drama and I'm glad Mr. Chbosky chose a different route.
What struck me throughout the book was the hopeful, optimistic tone of Charlie's letters, in spite of his difficult and painful experiences. Over the course of the year that Charlie writes these letters, we can see him growing in his understanding of others, trying to develop a more nuanced view of the world that recognizes complexity. People we love and that love us can do terrible things. Sometimes we make stupid mistakes that aren't easy to fix. But in spite of it all, he knows that he will be okay. It will all work out. "Things are good with me, and even when they're not, they will be soon enough."
Even while grappling with complex issues, Charlie approaches life with guileless and earnest integrity. A common theme that runs through the letters is advice he received from Bill, his English teacher, to "participate" in life rather than simply observe. In his last letter, it is apparent that he has taken this counsel to heart. "I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we'll never know most of them. But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them." For Charlie, it's about the future, not the past, and what he will choose to do starting with being present and participating.
Charlie has remarkable compassion, both for himself and for others. "Even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn't really change the fact that you have what you have. Good and bad...It's just different. Maybe it's good to put things in perspective, but sometimes, I think that the only perspective is to really be there...Because it's okay to feel things. And be who you are about them." Closing the book after finishing the last letter, I knew Charlie was going to be okay. He'd struggle and wonder and continue to try to find his place. But with his optimism, his integrity, and his compassion, he's going to be okay.
** Please note: This book deals with many heavy topics including suicide, domestic abuse, sexual molestation, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, rape, and adolescent sexuality. It has foul language and depictions of underage drinking, drug use, and sex. Definitely consider your comfort level with such material before picking it up.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).