I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower about a thousand years ago, by which I mean in high school. So when I saw that a movie version was being made—more than a decade after the book’s 1999 release—it seemed like a logical time to go in for the reread.
Perks is a weird little book. It’s written as a series of letters from lead character Charlie, a quirky and potentially clinically depressed freshman who shortly into the school year befriends a group of decidedly cooler seniors, including brother-sister duo Patrick and Sam, the former openly gay (which, in a My So-Called Life sort of way, appears to be simultaneously brave and routine at their high school) and the latter the immediate object of Charlie’s bumbling affections. Over the course of the school year, Charlie experiences a series of teenage rites of passage: His first party, his first hookup, his first pot brownie, etc. In some situations, Charlie’s mildly autistic inability to read social cues comes across as endearing, while at other moments—such as when, during a game of truth or dare, he’s dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room and goes for Sam instead of his girlfriend—Charlie fails miserably at being what every 15-year-old really wants to be in high school: at least normal enough to fit in with a group of friends.
There’s something very 1999 about Perks, and not just because I haven’t been concerned with the social minutiae of high school since then. It might be the noticeable lack of electronic devices—a modern-day Charlie would have spent hours stalking Sam on Facebook—but it might also be the lack of “millennials” in a broader sense. Everyone in Perks feels grounded: They play characters in weekly local performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they do Secret Santa, they have PG-13 house parties where no one does body shots or tries to drive a car into a pool. The almost humdrum teenagers in Perks are woefully under-represented in 2013 America, which is ironic since MTV—bastion of tween evolution—was actually Perks’ publishing imprint all those many years ago.
Despite being mildly anachronistic, there’s a lot about Perks that still feels very honest and accurate. The book captures very well how momentous everything seemed at that age, when missing a party or alienating a friend was worth hours upon hours of hardcore moping. It also touches on some very difficult subjects: Although Patrick is openly gay, his secret relationship with a closeted peer explodes tragically, and a last-minute revelation suggests that Charlie himself might be the product of a seriously troubled childhood. And while I guess Perks is a young adult book (?) it doesn’t dumb down any emotional depth, or woo teenage readers with sparkly vampires and almost-sex scenes.
If I could choose one word to describe Perks, it would be poignant. One of the very first lines in the book—”So this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be”—stuck with me after I read it the first time, and still resonates with me today. (For other quotes I liked, go to the Quotes page and search for “Perks”; they’re about three-quarters of the way down.) It’s a small book, short and sad and sweet and a nice read for a Sunday afternoon when you’re feeling old and downtrodden and want to remember why being 16 was almost definitely worse. (Unless of course you were exceedingly popular and attractive, in which case I admire/hate you.) So yes, worth the read, and subsequent trip down memory lane.
I promise, promise, that this is it for young adult books for awhile (although in my defense, I picked up Perks because of the movie tie-in.) Next week’s read is a nonfiction book about a hurricane that hit Texas in 1900, and I’m also still making my way (slowly) through Les Miserables (16% done!) So basically the overall IQ level of this blog is going to go up like a billion points soon, I swear.
TITLE: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
AUTHOR: Stephen Chbosky
PAGES: 224 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: John Green gets depressed
FIRST LINE: “Dear friend, 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.”