On my first read of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, I didn’t understand the hype. It’s no understatement to say it’s considered a modern classic, one of those coming-of-age books that everyone is supposed to read – but I just couldn’t appreciate its appeal. Upon a reread, I think I finally see it.
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”Stephen Chbosky
What worked for me
Feeling infinite: in all the teenage-centric books I’ve ever read, this had one of the most interesting views on memories. Instead of describing a so-called ‘perfect day’ , the author repeatedly shows how we remember specific moments in all their brilliance. I’ve certainly felt the same: memories where I forgot adolescence is fleeting, where every part of me lived in the moment. In addition, this method helped keep the book brief, and thereby impactful the whole read through. The moment of feeling infinite is both the book’s best scene, and a cementing moment of the central friendship.
Inconclusiveness: move aside, happy ending – this novel takes a unique stance on how best to conclude a coming-of-age story. Since it heavily features romance, I was expecting the classic ‘boy gets with girl and they ride off into the sunset together’ ending. I was pleasantly surprised in that: it’s clear that the main character is not only continuing to learn, but “both happy and sad at the same time“, come the end of the novel. It feels like we only saw an excerpt of a story; he feels like a real person, whose life existed before the novel, and will continue long after.
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”Stephen Chbosky
And… what didn’t
Abusive relationships: the above quote is used at a point in the book to explain why a character stayed in an abusive relationship. Beautiful as it is, this use of it is incredibly problematic. The main character, who this is explained to, is not a child. He’s fifteen years old at the time, and this is far too old to be limiting your understanding of intimate relationship abuse to something so glib and simplistic. If a book brings up such nuanced issues, they ought to be addressed with the suitable gravitas.
The idea of a wallflower: this one was such a glaring issue that it blinded me at first to the book’s virtues. Sadly, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a plot line revolve around an introvert ‘discovering themselves’ by becoming more social. This is simply not how the world works. Chbosky’s emphasis on ‘participating’ is certainly noble, but it’s implied to be done exclusively through parties and dances, dates and hang-outs. Instead, a single friendship scene could’ve been cut in order to show a more real experience: this shy student discovering new hobbies and talents, and coming into himself individually, and as a friend.
Final review: 3.5/5 stars