I want to start by acknowledging that this book carries a lot of weight with a lot of people. It’s resonant and revered. And if I’d read it when I was sixteen it would have been one of those books that shaped me. It would have reached in and stirred me up, leaving me different by the time I was through.
Almost ten years too late, it still had an effect, just a much smaller one.
I do want to say that, in general, I’ve been sort of raw around the edges lately. I think it’s mainly because of Shadows of Self, and how much that ending hurt me. But watching Attack on Titan, barely sleeping, and constantly bouncing between my two jobs and school assignments has me frayed.
Music helps, but it hurts too. Songs like Hozier’s Work Song make me cry while I drive to work. And I’m not sure if, at the end, I’m relieved or ashamed. Probably a little of both.
Anyway, Chbosky’s only novel is disarming in its straightforward and genuine narrator. Charlie writes a series of letters during the course of his Freshman year of high school to an anonymous recipient. There he shares his experiences and struggles as he tries to “participate”.
You see, Charlie is pretty… well… fucked up. His best and only friend killed himself over the summer, he has anger issues, and seems overly sensitive, crying at the drop of a hat.
But, the letters show us his efforts to be a good friend and learn how to interact with people, especially the opposite sex. You can’t help but to love Charlie, and you fall in love with Patrick and Sam because, through Charlie’s eyes, they are perfect. Infinite.
Now, without giving away the biggest part of the book, just know that this book is pretty dark, and it depicts teenagers doing all kinds of things that adults think they shouldn’t, but in reality they do. Experimenting with drugs, drinking, gambling, sex. You name it, Charlie knows someone who’s done it before.
I think it’s Charlie’s innocent narration of such dark events that makes the novel so striking. And it’s the same thing that makes the beautiful, bright moments so unforgettable.
As I mentioned before, this was a selection for Book Club. I was the only one who genuinely enjoyed reading it. I read it in two days, taking my time to absorb Charlie’s simple yet striking prose. The other Clubbers struggled to pick it up, and had to fight to finish it in time.
It was also interesting, because two of us really identified with Charlie, mainly because of his incredible introspection. His attention to details and feelings hooked me, because I’m that way, and was even more so as a teen.
But, one Clubber said she had a hard time reading the novel because she found his intuitive introspection unbelievable, especially for a sixteen year old. Which then floored the two of us who really “clicked” with that aspect of Charlie’s character.
One girl, though she identified with Charlie, was super angry at the end of the story. Angry at how all those around Charlie never noticed, never bothered to ask him, or offer to help him. That they took his presence and his giving nature for granted.
Whereas, come the end of the story, I didn’t feel that way at all. I just felt sad. Not upset, not numb, or raw. Just pure sad. Which was kind of nice. Feelings are often so convoluted, mingling together and confusing me. To have one true, unbastardized emotion at the hands of a paperback was freeing.
I think it’s amazing that a 213 page novel could be so different to each of us.
I don’t want to paint this book in too dark a light. It is heavy, to be sure, but there are a lot of light, happy moments too. And because of the dark themes and subjects, those happy moments are really bright and important.
I will say that I think a second read-through would really be a benefit, because you could read between the lines of all his letters, knowing the ending, and find the truth obscured just behind them.
Anyway, thinking it all over again is making me sad. And not in that pure and freeing kind of way. I think I’m too raw now. There’s too much other stuff knocking around in my brain to leave enough space for pure, sad thoughts.
If you want resonance, if you want a poignant story that will cling to you, but you don’t want to be happy about it, then I suggest you give The Perks of Being a Wallflower a chance.
I’m grateful that I did.