The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Title: The Perks of Being A Wallflower

Author: Stephen Chbosky

Earlier this year I realized that my insistence on reading the book before the film was flawed – I’m actually more likely to enjoy both separately if I start with the movie – otherwise I become too attached to a book to accept any deviation in the adaptation. The only problem with this is that if I loved a film, as I did with The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, I’m never sure how much of my love of the book was shaped by this.

The book and the film have many similarities, as you’d expect when an author is also responsible for an adaptation’s screenplay and direction. So as in the film, Charlie is not quite on everyone else’s wavelength, thought in the book this is far more obvious as we spend the time effectively inside Charlie’s head. Simple cues, or the right way to act in a social situation, sometimes elude him, and he seems to have missed many of the standard teenage rites of passage – either through ignorance or being (fairly enough) distracted by the bout of depression he has only recently emerged from. The suicide of his close friend the year before has made managing his emotions even more difficult – and without this friend, Charlie begins high school effectively alone. His intelligence seems to be just one more thing which makes him less equipped to make new friends. The best way to navigate the next three years, he decides, is to try his best not to stand out – however lonely this may prove to be.

Thankfully, Charlie soon meets step-siblings Sam and Patrick, older and experienced at battling their own personal demons. They, and their friends, have chosen the extroverted route and with them Charlie’s year as a freshman changes him in ways he never expected.

If that sounds cliché it is in parts – it’s a coming of age story, and though I haven’t come across anyone quite like Charlie and his friends before at the same time they felt weirdly familiar. Chbosky perfectly captures that moment where you meet people cooler or quirkier than you for the first time, and immediately start to like everything they like in an attempt to be closer to them. It’s an oddly nostalgic look at being a teenager, and weirdly hopeful even through the often very dark events Charlie navigates.

There are a few parts that lifted Perks above most coming of age books, at least for me. Charlie’s voice is perfect – Chbosky has managed to make his character perceptive and occasionally oblivious simultaneously. The problem with a narrator that views the world around him differently to most readers is letting the reader understand the situation even when the narrator doesn’t, and doing so in a way that doesn’t make the narrator seem stupid or foolish. But Charlie with all his problems is lovely, and he stays with you, the way any fully drawn character should.

The other unexpectedly lovely part of Perks is Charlie’s family. It’s only when a relatively loving and supportive family pops up in a book that I realize how few of them there are in fiction, or at least how few memorable ones there are. But Charlie’s family never seem like plot devices, or problems, or hindrances – he loves them, and tries to understand and help them, and even when his sister takes her own problems out on him it’s clear that the rest of the family feel the same way. Quiet, bookish, and not entirely stable; Charlie’s probably not the child his sport-loving  father expected, or the younger sibling his jock older brother and conscientious older sister would have chosen. But they love him, and want him to be happy, and don’t seem to look down on him or feel their strengths make them better – they just worry, on occasion – which any family would.

End to ramble – Perks of Being a Wallflower is completely gut-wrenching at times. But between all the sad moments it’s a book about discovering friendship, and love, and music, and great books for the first time. If you can’t like that I think you’re completely heartless.