My Aunt Helen was my favorite person in the whole world. She was my mom’s sister. She got straight A’s when she was a teenager and she used to give me books to read. My father said that the books were a little too old for me, but I liked them so he just shrugged and let me read.
—Stephen Chbosky, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
When it comes to teenagers, I’m usually a “shrug and let them read what they want” kind of parent. I like to talk about the books that my adolescents are reading, but I don’t generally refuse them permission to read books. My 17-year-old daughter has read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky, and she thought it was okay. However, if my 13 year old asked to read the book, I’d explain my concerns and ask her not to read it until she was older, or maybe not at all.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which has just been adapted into a movie, is an epistolary novel narrated by 15-year-old Charlie. He is just entering high school in 1991 as he begins writing this series of self-revelatory letters to an unnamed “friend.” Charlie is the wallflower of the title. He lives on the fringes of high school’s social scene, and his best friend Michael committed suicide the year before the book’s opening, while the two were in middle school. So Charlie—friendless, innocent, naïve, and wounded—enters high school as an observer rather than a participant.
Unfortunately for the conservative reader, a lot of what Charlie observes and then writes about in bald, unadorned prose is shameful behavior: date rape and abuse, drug abuse, drunkenness, homosexual and heterosexual experimentation and promiscuity, and bullying. Yes, it’s realistic, and none of the behaviors is celebrated, except maybe the homosexual explorations of Charlie’s friend, Patrick. But Charlie describes all of these things that happen to his friends, family, and acquaintances in such an artless, unsophisticated, and generally non-judgmental manner that I found it difficult to believe that Charlie was for real. On one page, Charlie seems to have some sense of right and wrong as he becomes angry with a guy named Dave who abused a girl in Charlie’s presence. But then a few pages later Charlie reverts to his old detached, reporting the drug abuse and other illicit and harmful behaviors of his friends and family with calm near-indifference.
I wanted to label him in my mind as autistic or savant or mentally challenged or disturbed, but Charlie is none of these. He cries a lot. Various people in the novel call him a freak. He sees a psychiatrist, and the doctor prescribes some kind of medicine, probably an anti-depressant. And eventually he does have a sort of mental breakdown because of an episode from his childhood, the memory of which he has repressed.
But for most of the novel he’s intelligent; stable, if odd; and, of course, quite observant. I just felt as if Charlie was too strange, too quirky, too out-of-the-mainstream for me to identify with him or understand how he could be so very innocent and ingenuous, and also so insightful, at the same time.
I’ve read several comparisons between “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and the classic teen angst book, “Catcher in the Rye.” In fact, in “Perks,” Charlie reads “Catcher in the Rye” and identifies himself with Holden Caulfield.
I kept thinking, though, of a book from my teenage years: “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. The protagonist of “Flowers for Algernon” is also named Charlie (Gordon), and he also is a sweet, innocent young man who lives on the fringes of society. Charlie Gordon, however, is actually severely mentally disabled, and he only understands much of what is going on around him after he takes a drug that increases his IQ to genius level. Even though reading about a “smart drug” that turns a mentally disabled man into a genius requires some suspension of disbelief, it made more sense to me than Charlie in “Perks,” whose voice alternates between Profound Philosopher and Forrest Gump.
The book just didn’t work for me, as a coming of age novel, as a quirky depiction of introversion and mental illness, or as a sketch of high school angst and friendship. Most conservative Christian readers will find the sexual content offensive and somewhat propagandistic, and there are just better books out there that deal with the same themes and topics. I read countless reviews of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” that extolled it as one of the best books the reviewer had ever read and a modern classic, but I just didn’t see it.
If you’re a parent and your teen wants to read the book, I’d recommend that you read it first and decide whether your child would be more confused (as I was) or charmed (as were many others) by this tale of a spectator who tries to enter into life and joy but fails. As far as I can tell from the epilogue of the book, Charlie never really makes it into the dance.
Image copyright Simon & Schuster. Review copy obtained from Amazon. Note: The new film version of “Perks” had a successful opening weekend in limited release, and will be expanding to more cities soon.