Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stephen Chbosky looks on from the sidelines in this provocative novel.

I was intrigued with the premise of this novel—the story of a character who feels alienated from his experiences—and I was pleased to see what this talented novelist could make of it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (213 pages, MTV Books, $14) is told from the perspective of Charlie, a precocious young school kid, just coming into puberty, who has a checklist of neuroses and hospitalizations, but who writes beautifully and has an astonishing imagination.

The story he tells is of budding sexuality and the even more difficult ins and outs of emotional experience for any early teen.  The novel is written in the form of letters to an unspecified friend.  As the novel proceeds, it almost seems as this letter-writing might be a form a therapy.  What is really great about it, though, is the way we get Charlie’s own responses to things.  Sometimes, we feel that we understand more than he does about what’s going on, but at other times, he really surprises us.

Early on, we see Charlie in his family—the youngest of three children—and with his attentive, but hardly overly doting parents. We also hear of an aunt, a sister of his mother, who was wonderful to the boy but who died young in an automobile accident.

Charlie’s depression at his aunt’s death is enough to send him to the hospital for treatment, and as the novel opens, he is coping with another death, this time his best friend at school, who ended his own life.

With the cards stacked against him in this way, Charlie tries to become friendly with some older kids at school.  At first it seems like they are ready to brush him away, but because he is so smart and articulate, they seem ready to take him up.  The brother and sister, Patrick and Sam, befriend Charlie and he is over the moon with the idea that these kids are his friends, and when he is honest with himself he admits that he finds himself deeply attracted to Sam.

As Charlie gets pulled into the lives of these older students—with their smoking, drinking, and drugs, as well as their more mature approach to relationships and experience—he starts to feel that there is more to life than he realized.  As he tries to cope with the sexual realities around him—friend are having sex, some are gay, some are violent—he feels that he is watching from the sidelines and seems afraid of having experiences of his own.  Everyone else seems to know how to do it, and he’s just confused.

The pleasure of the novel is listening to Charlie as he reacts to the special reading that his English teacher is giving him—he is way beyond his grade in reading and writing—and watching him react to all the events that make up high school life.  But what is really wonderful is watching him grow, as he does, from a child to a bona fide adolescent.

This book is listed for “young readers,” but I think anyone could benefit from its insights.  It’s a coming-of-age novel to put with the best of them.

Stephan Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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