Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallfloweris another one that goes in the category of “recommended ages ago and I’m just now getting around to it.” And I honestly wish I had read it sooner. Even though Charlie’s experiences in high school are so completely different from what mine were, he is an easy character to relate to. It’s more than just the general (and usually tiring) “high school is a time when no one feels like they fit in anywhere” and “true friends are the ones who see us for who we really are and accept us” themes. It’s in Charlie’s straightforward and simple representation of his observations and reactions.
Charlie is beginning his freshman year of high school and he knows that he’s different, even if he can’t quite put his finger on it. Open about troubles in his past, including the suicide of a close friend, there is something almost scientific in the way that he writes letters about himself and his life, all addressed to an anonymous friend. Charlie luckily finds friends in two seniors (who miraculously overlook the fact that he is a freshman). Patrick and Sam provide Charlie with something to observe and “participate” in.
I found Charlie’s awareness and support of women’s issues refreshing. Some of that is the early 1990’s setting with the continuing and shifting feminist influences. Even seeing the changes between when the novel is set (1991-1992) and when I was in high school in the early 2000’s shows how far we’ve come (and yet, there’s still such a long way to go). The struggles of his female friends and family members are handled well in their presentation. Similarly, Charlie’s ready acceptance of Patrick as gay and the support he shows him also speak to the shifting positions of so many Americans in the last few decades. I can’t help but wonder how many minds this novel has opened in the fourteen years since it was first published. A character younger people relate to and who expresses so little judgment, just acceptance is a powerful force (I’m glad they’re appearing more and more frequently).
If anything, this novel could have stood to be a little longer. As a book nerd, I think Charlie’s reactions to the extra reading assignments from Bill could have been longer (or if the essays Charlie “wrote” were an appendix or something). And while the book’s handling of gender and sexual issues was fine, was so much smoking really necessary? And I’m not talking about the other drug use in the book (unfortunately those things happen and kids will be kids and experiment) but the way that the straightforward smoking was portrayed doesn’t ring true (at least not in my experiences). Maybe I was just too young in the early 90’s to remember clearly but by the time I was in middle school and high school, no one would allow students to smoke anywhere near school property, let alone in the building. And I don’t know why that seems to bother me more than the other drug use. It might be both the biggest and subtlest way that Charlie gives in to peer pressure.