Saturday 4 August 2012

REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (4.5*)

(Pocket Books, 2009)

"He's a wallflower...  You see things.  You keep quiet about them.  And you understand."

I've never met a single person - friend, blogger, librarian or bookseller - who has read The Perks of Being a Wallflower and not fallen in love.  That's quite a reputation for a humble book to live up to!  Perhaps it also helps explain why, knowing little to nothing about it, I left it sitting on my shelves for so long.  It was actually the fervent whispers about the film, the growing buzz, and finally the fantastically exuberant trailer, which lured me back to my bookcase and persuaded me to pluck it down at long last.  And as always, I am kicking myself for letting it go unread for so long...

This is such a wonderful book, and it's perfect summer reading too.  It's the coming-of-age story of a fifteen year-old boy called Charlie, told entirely in epistolary form via letters to an unnamed friend-of-a-friend.  Quiet, introspective and naive, Charlie is surely one of the most loveable and achingly sweet characters I've ever come across in my reading life.  It is his freshman year, and to his surprise his largely solitary existence is turned upside down when he is 'adopted' by worldly older stepsiblings Patrick and Sam.  At the same time his English teacher, Bill, begins to draw him out of his academic shell with some well-timed encouragement.  Slowly, his new friends nudge Charlie out into the big wide world, into a bountiful land of music and books, love and longing, parties and The Rocky Horror Picture Show - and stand beside him through the hardships that teenage life and his own past conspire to throw his way. 

This is definitely going to be one of my favourite books of the year.  I adored Charlie and found myself underlining things on almost every page as his thoughtful exploration of the world around him prompted me to stop and reflect.  I also noted down dozens of movie, book and music references to check out later, which was a bit of an unexpected bonus!  Through his letters we can see Charlie's style mature as he does, and our involvement becomes deeply personal because it feels like he's writing just for us.  Chbosky's characters are complex and painfully real, and no one is all good or all bad, even Charlie himself.  I think Patrick was my favourite, because he was all heart even when he wasn't necessarily doing the right thing!  I loved Bill too - I think every student should have a Bill to see their strengths and provide a shining light of knowledge and hope during the difficult school years.  Some really serious teen issues are discussed throughout the book - rape, drugs, gay identity, abuse - without ever feeling too heavy or gratuitous, and I can well understand the reputation it has gained as a positive, even life-saving cult classic for young readers.

The only thing I didn't like - and the reason for the half-star drop - were those occasional moments when I felt like my heart would break because SURELY no one could be so naive at fifteen?  The book becomes quite difficult to read at times as Charlie's naivety is stripped away - this is the true meaning of the word 'bittersweet'!  But it really is an unmissable novel.  Charlie is such an intuitive character, and the writing is beautiful; he thinks outside the box and it's a pleasure to read!  He is inspiring and generous, and accepts everything with a high level of tolerance and emotional intelligence, even if he is very childlike in other ways.  There is something for everyone here, whether you are 15 or 50 - and I can't WAIT until 2013 when Chbosky's adaptation finally hits the big screens.  I'll be first in line to laugh and cry all over again...  :)

Notable Quotables:
  • "I have finished To Kill a Mockingbird.  It is now my favorite book of all time, but then again, I always think that until I read another book."
  • "... things change.  And friends leave.  And life doesn't stop for anybody."
  • "There's nothing like the deep breaths after laughing that hard.  Nothing in the world like a sore stomach for the right reasons.  It was that great."
  • "I love my mom so much.  I don't care if that's corny to say.  I think on my next birthday, I'm going to buy her a present.  I think that should be the tradition.  The kid gets gifts from everybody, and he buys one present for his mom since she was there, too.  I think that would be nice."
  • "She wasn't bitter.  She was sad, though.  But it was a hopeful kind of sad.  The kind of sad that just takes time."
  • "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."

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.