Discussion location: The Rope Walk

 Chosen by: Fiona

 Reason for choice: Sister found a book which Fiona would love, now one of her favourite books, wanted everyone to read as film version soon to be released.

 Welcome New Members: Clare Griffin & Ruel Taylor

Best lines:

“We accept the love we think we deserve”

“I think he may even be twenty one because he drinks red wine”

“Maybe these are my glory days and I’m not even realising it”

“I really think that everybody should have watercolors, magnetic poetry, and a harmonica.”

Review:

Of the many novels in the coming-of-age genre, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is probably the easiest to identify and emphasise with. Fifteen year old Charlie is about to commence high school as a loner and outsider; a wallflower, watching life from the side lines. The novel is his series of letters to an unknown person discussing his sometimes mundane daily life and emotions, touching on a wide range of issues: from sex and drugs to homosexuality and suicide.

From the outset, as the only initial character, Charlie is immediately engaging, with an inviting style of narration. His emotions and observations are easy to relate to, and his unusual but sweet naivety quickly draws the reader in. Charlie’s awkwardness, lack of confidence and confusion at where he fits in is easily identifiable for many teenagers, and the lonely moments that he so accurately describes are universal, Charlie is alive in the mind of the reader.

By allowing Charlie to be so relatable, the reader is left with an overwhelming hope that Charlie will find his place, and is relieved when he discovers like-minded people in seniors Sam and Patrick (and their wider group of friends). Similarly, the reader can identify with his moments of happiness, such as he experiences standing in Sam’s jeep as she drives through the tunnel. Much of the power of the novel is derived from the reader’s ability to relate to both the lonely moments and the tunnel moments, and so to become emotionally invested in the character of Charlie, and his future.

Another strength of the novel is its epistolary style, unusual in that it is directed to somebody Charlie does not know, which both encourages the reader to feel personally involved – as the letters are expressed to an anonymous person, and allows Charlie to be refreshingly honest and un-tempered. Through this honesty, there are moments which are amusingly mundane, where Charlie himself questions why he is telling this to the reader, and moments of considered intelligence through observations which are accidentally incredibly profound.

Indeed, the novel is well written and easy to visualise, with an uncomplicated, matter-of-fact narration which enables the novel to not become too deep or too dark. Despite touching on tender issues such as abortion and suicide, and controversial issues such as drugs and homosexuality, being banned by some schools, admonished by some parents, and gracing the top 10 most-challenged books in several years, the novel does not delve too deeply into these issues, and instead treats these universal themes as matters of normal teenage life to be dealt with alongside masturbation and social acceptance.

Chbosky manages, in a relatively short novel, to capture a wide range of difficult issues, as well as believable sub-characters and their emotions, for example, Charlie’s lecturer who wants to emotionally develop him by giving him further reading, and Charlie’s sister, with whom his relationship changes from sibling disputes and silences to trust and support in times of need.

In the novel’s two main sub-characters, Sam and step-sibling Patrick, Chbosky fully depicts the problems of adolescence. Although they welcome Charlie and save him from loneliness; in the often teenage characteristic of self-absorption, they both take advantage of and fail to properly look after their naïve younger friend. In particular, Sam realises that Charlie is in love with her, but tells him she would never be interested in him, then later kisses him and initiates their almost-sexual encounter when she her boyfriend cheats on her; whilst Patrick kisses Charlie, and exposes him to dangerous situations, such as leaving him alone in a park at night in a known homosexual meeting place.

Despite this, Patrick’s actions seem more forgivable than Sam’s as she encourages Charlie, despite knowing how much he likes her, and is generally more controlled and responsible than Patrick, who is heart-broken after experiencing the difficulty of being homosexuality in high school, with his quarterback boyfriend Brad refusing to make their relationship public, and later beating him up for being “a faggot” after his father discovers them in bed together.

As well as the characters. Chbosky also achieves a level of depth in the novel, such as Charlie’s thoughtfully considered Christmas presents and mix-tapes. Published in 1999 by MTV, the novel references many songs and artists, from the Beatles ‘Blackbird’, a favourite of Charlie’s, to 90’s grunge of The Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. It also makes reference to many films and novels, and seems to be heavily influenced by Sallinger’s 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye, though Charlie is infinitely more likeable than its protagonist Holden Caulfield.

If there is any criticism to be made of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it is that the revelation at the novel’s finale seems to be random and abruptly dealt with. It is apparent throughout the novel that Charlie is unusual; even for a coming-of-age novel he seems to require much development, and his naivety and frequent crying is abnormal for a teenage boy. Furthermore, his self-confessional and sometimes socially inappropriate behaviour (during a game of ‘truth or dare’ – kissing the prettiest girl in the room, Sam and not his own girlfriend) and his inability to filter the irrelevant matters out of his communication suggests that Charlie may have Aspergers. Moreover, some secret about Charlie is hinted at throughout the novel, which seems to point towards this conclusion.

However, towards the end of the novel, Charlie suddenly recalls being sexually abused during his childhood by his now deceased aunt Helen, whom he loved dearly, and subsequently finishes the novel recovering in a psychiatric unit. The need to attribute a cause for Charlie’s irregularity seems to detract from the novel, partly due to the abrupt nature of the ending, the random and seemingly unrelated issue of child abuse, and the fault of many novels to unnecessarily blame odd behaviour on child abuse. Charlie’s peculiarity would have been better left as a mystery, explainable enough by how difficult teenage years can be, without needing be ascribed to something else.

Despite the ending, the novel gives a strong overall impression that it is normal to feel different and unpopular; to be the wallflower, and that the perks of doing so are being accepted into the right social circle to enable you to jump onto the dance floor and participate, rather than letting life pass you by. It is no surprise that the novel has reportedly discouraged a handful of teenagers from committing suicide, as it provides a bright outlook in what can be lonely and difficult times.

Overall rating: 8/10

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a teenage bible; relatable, identifiable, full of moments that most teenagers have experienced, being a wallflower and watching from the edge vs jumping onto the dancefloor, rather than letting life pass you by you should participate.

Plot synopsis:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a series of letters written in 1990’s Pittsburgh by teenager Charlie to an anonymous person whom he does not personally know. At the beginning of the novel, Charlie is about to start high school; a wallflower, a loner, whose only friend Michael has recently committed suicide. Charlie is an unconventional thinker, and as the story begins he is shy and unpopular.

Charlie introduces his family; sister, older brother away at College, mother, father and deceased aunt Helen, who Charlie previously saw as his best friend, and whom something bad occurred to but nobody will talk about. He witnesses his sister being hit by her boyfriend, and catches them naked together.

Once high school has commenced, Charlie does not fit in and becomes renowned for beating up a known bully. He is given additional reading by his English teacher Bill. He describes a boy in his shop class, known as “nothing” and approaches him at a football game. He is introduced by the boy, Patrick to Sam. They take him to a diner after the game, where he mistakenly believes them to be a couple and learns that they are step-siblings.

He instantly likes Sam and wants to ask her on a date, and that night has a dirty dream about her that he feels guilty about. When he tells Sam about his dream, she tells him that he is too young for her and not to waste his time thinking about her in that way. His English teacher Bill asks Charlie if he always thinks so much and tells him to participate more, asking him if he goes to dances or on dates. Charlie tells Bill about his sister’s boyfriend hitting her and when he arrives home, he realises that Bill has informed their parents and his sister is subsequently banned from seeing her boyfriend. She tells Charlie she hates him and calls him a freak.

Charlie tries to participate more. He goes to a party with Patrick and Sam, where he meets their friends, Bob and Mary Elizabeth. Bob gives Charlie a brownie and Charlie unknowingly gets stoned. He witnesses Patrick kissing the high school’s quarterback Brad, and they ask him to keep their relationship secret. Bob calls Charlie a wallflower and they accept him into their social circle. Charlie also goes to the homecoming dance, and on the drive home in Sam’s pick up truck he experiences an ‘infinite’ moment when they drive fast through a tunnel and Sam stands up in the back.

Patrick tells Charlie that Brad denies their relationship and got drunk and stoned a lot to cover it. Brad and Patrick have sex and Patrick covers for him, parents send him to rehab. Charlie Starts working for Mary Elizabeth’s fanzine Punk Rocky. Sam and Patrick take Charlie to see their Rocky Horror Picture Show, where Patrick plays Frank’n’ furter and Sam plays Janet. Charlie admits he loves Sam and thinks she is the prettiest girl in world. Sam starts going out with an older boy named Craig, who plays Rocky in the show. Charlie’s sister tells Charlie that she is secretly seeing her boyfriend.

At Christmas, Charlie learns about secret santa, and he picks thoughtful gifts for Patrick, including making him a mix-tape. Patrick buys Charlie a new suit and Sam buys him a typewriter as he has decided that he wants to become a writer. Charlie reads out a poem which Bob believes was a suicide note (most likely Michael’s). Sam asks Charlie is he has ever kissed a girl and relays her first kiss, when she was seven, by one of her father’s friends. She tells Charlie that she wants his first kiss to be somebody who loves him, and kisses him.

It is Charlie’s birthday and he feels that there is something wrong with him, he thinks about his aunt Helen who died on his birthday. His brother comes home for Christmas, and Charlie relays his family’s history. They visit aunt Helen’s grave, and Charlie states that aunt Helen was molested as a child, and describes her difficult life of drugs, alcohol and hospitals, and her death due to a car crash on his seventh birthday. Charlie visits aunt Helen’s grave alone and tells her what is going on in his life.

Charlie goes to a New Year’s Eve party with Sam and Patrick, where he feels insignificant. He overhears Sam and Craig having sex, and understands the end of the poem. He posts a letter, then collapses from taking LSD at the party; is picked up by the police and taken to hospital. His family take care of him, but when the LSD seems to have affected him for longer, Sam and Patrick help him to overcome it and he starts smoking. Charlie starts to see a psychiatrist.

Mary Elizabeth asks Charlie to go to a dance with her. Charlie plays Rocky in the show when Craig doesn’t turn up, and Sam gives him advice about dating Mary Elizabeth. Charlie wishes that he could stop being in love with Sam. At the dance, Charlie sees his sister and her boyfriend have an argument, and she admits to Charlie that she is pregnant and asks him to go to the abortion clinic with her. Charlie takes her to the clinic and looks after her.

Charlie goes on another date with Mary Elizabeth, and they have sex. Mary Elizabeth tells Sam and Patrick, but Charlie feels that their relationship is not right and finds her overwhelming. Mary Elizabeth buys Charlie a poetry book, but he feels strange about it and returns the book, but then feels terrible and re-buys it. At a game of truth or dare, Charlie is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and kisses Sam. Patrick drives Charlie home and he believes something is wrong with himself.

Nobody calls Charlie during the  holidays and Charlie calls Mary Elizabeth to apologise but she states it is too late. Charlie buys some marijuana off Bob and starts to smoke. When term commences, Charlie avoids everyone except Bob, who tells him that Brad’s dad caught him and Patrick together and beat up Brad. Charlie sees Patrick try to talk to Brad, and Brad yell ‘faggot’ at Patrick. A fight starts between them, and Charlie joins in, telling Brad that if ever does it again, he will tell them Brad’s secret.

Sam and Charlie start talking again, and Sam tells him that he ruined hers and Mary Elizabeth’s friendship for a while. Charlie and Patrick start spending time together, and drinking a lot. Charlie accompanies Patrick to a known homosexual meeting place in a park, clubs and bars, and they take drugs together.  Patrick sees Brad with another man. Patrick kisses Charlie several times and  Charlie lets him.

It is almost the end of the school year, when Charlie’s sister, Sam and Patrick will graduate. Sam is leaving in two weeks, and Charlie begins to feel lonely. Sam and Craig split up as Craig had been cheating on her during their entire relationship. Charlie goes to Bill’s house and meets Bill’s girlfriend, and Bill tells Charlie that he is gifted, and that he considers Charlie to be a friend. Charlie goes to his sisters graduation and the after-party, where he sees Mary Elizabeth and her boyfriend, Sam dances with Charlie, and they all swap presents.

The night before Sam leaves, Charlie spends with her, and asks him why he didn’t ask her out when she broke up with Craig, and asks if he wanted to kiss her when they were dancing and why he let Patrick kiss him. She tells him to be more honest. Charlie kisses her and they begin to undress each other, when Charlie asks her to stop as he feels strange. He sleeps on her sofa, and dreams that his aunt Helen was touching him like Sam did.

Charlie says goodbye to Sam, and sends a final letter where he explains that he has been in hospital for two months as he broke down when he realised that his dream was true. Patrick continues to visit Charlie in hospital, and all of his family and friends, including Bill visit him. When he is released from hospital, Sam and Charlie take him to the diner and they share stories, then Sam drives him through the tunnel and he stands up and feels infinite. The novel ends with Charlie stating that he might not write any more letters as he may be too busy ‘participating’.

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