“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky is the story of a freshman high schooler, Charlie, who reveals his story through a series of letters over the course of a year to an unnamed recipient. The epistolary novel has a rich tradition as a vehicle for humorous, philosophical, historical, and all manner of tales, notable amongst which is “Fanny Hill,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Princess Diaries,” and a personal favorite–“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” And as such forms of novels go, I believe “Wallflower” is one of the best. The author creates such a unique voice in Charlie, that without much in the way of descriptions, I could envision him and all his friends. The story of his freshman year, when he meets two charismatic seniors, brother and sister named Patrick and Sam, who launch him on to a series of experiences, unfolds slowly, uncovering more and more of the personality and past of this boy who stands on the sidelines and observes all in the world around him. Charlie is clearly a unique boy who experiences everything with the full force of emotion, often reducing him to tears. Yet, at the same time, he seems passive and reluctant to take charge of his life and actions, and maddeningly allows people to ‘act upon him’ without consequence. We as readers as also passive observers of Charlie’s experiences as he encounters the world of first sexual encounters, drug experiments, the underworld of anonymous homosexual hook-ups, first dates, teen pregnancy, child abuse, and family dramas. Despite the weightiness of these topics, we also vicariously experience the feeling of being a teen–cruising in a car with your best friends, listening to that perfect song, and as Charlie describes it: “And in that moment, I swear, we were infinite.” Charlie’s friends are all lovingly described and perfectly drawn…although I find the character of the siblings Patrick and Sam to be wise way beyond their years, (along with being seemingly parentless and extremely reckless.) Charlie, with a profound innocence as he observes the world around him, seems to be almost “Gump-esque.” In the end of the novel, Charlie uncovers a long buried secret, which is at the very heart of his passivity and which changes everything. The theme, in the end, seems to be encompassed in Sam’s wry and somewhat cynical observation: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
“Wallflower” reminded me of another “teen novel” I read a year ago: “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. In this story, the main character, Clay Jensen, receives a mysterious box of tapes. When he listens to them, he discovers they are the recordings of a class mate and former crush, Hannah Baker, who two weeks previously has committed suicide. As Clay listens to the tapes, he learns about the thirteen people and incidents which prompted Hannah to take her life…and one of those thirteen is him. The story unfolds through the alternating voices of Hannah on the tapes, and in Clay’s thoughts and observations as he spends the night re-tracing the places in town where various incidents occurred. The story was compelling and the concept/execution of the two voices was technically well done…however, I remember intensely disliking the Hannah character, which greatly effects one’s ability to sympathize with her plight. Interestingly, in this novel as well there is an element of passivity (on the part of Hannah) who does not take action when she could have to avert a terrible event. This passivity leads to her sense of guilt, but unlike Charlie, however, to a different end. Overall, “Thirteen Reasons” was a good read and I applaud the author for taking on the important topic of teen suicide.