The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is amongst the most iconic coming-of-age books in our time and for the right reasons. A must-read.
By Sanjana Bhatla | Opening Doorz Editorial | July 06, 2021
Book Review: The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Author: Stephen Chbosky
The Essence: The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is amongst the most iconic coming-of-age books in our time and for the right reasons. It is pragmatic in its dealing with homophobia, sexuality and sexual assault, substance abuse, mental illnesses and dealing with the character’s past, and the confusing time between adolescence and adulthood.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower Book Review
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is an epistolary novel written by Stephen Chbosky. The story follows a series of letters, the protagonist, Charlie, writes to someone addressed only as ‘friend’. This friend seems to be someone Charlie greatly trusts with all his secrets, although we never find out why or even who they are.
Set in the early 1990s, the novel documents Charlie’s first year through high school. The readers also meet other characters like Sam and Patrick, seniors in Charlie’s high school, and his best friends, Charlie’s family (including his parents, deceased aunt and his siblings), and his English teacher Bill, to name a few.
We realize early on in the book that Charlie is grappling with loneliness—his best friend Michael, had committed suicide the previous year, and his aunt Helen (his self-professed favourite person) passed away years ago. Completely alone, and about to embark on a new chapter in his life, Charlie seems lost.
His life starts to slowly turn around, however, when he starts making friends. First, he befriends his English teacher Bill Anderson and then two seniors from his school, Sam and Patrick. The rest of Charlie’s letters showcase his school year as he navigates these relationships with his friends (and his family) and slowly unravels a painful past, which explains his strange behaviour.
Issues tackled by the book
There are numerous issues that the book tackles– some of them head-on and some more subtly. One of the major subjects the book discusses is sexual assault. There are three characters in the book that are sexual assault survivors–Sam, Aunt Helen, and as we later find out, Charlie. Through these three characters, we see three very different responses to sexual assault. Charlie represses those memories, Sam dates abusive men and Aunt Helen assaulted her own nephew. One thing in common for all three of them is the fact that they were all assaulted by someone they trusted–Aunt Helen by her father’s friend, Sam by her father’s boss and Charlie by Aunt Helen.
Charlie’s case, in particular, is bittersweet to read. It is heartbreaking that the one person he loved more than anything was the one who hurt him the most. It is even worse to see that he had unconsciously repressed those memories, and battled with PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder), blaming himself for her death. It is refreshing, on the other hand, to not see a male victim of sexual assault ridiculed and disbelieved, but rather be loved and accepted.
The second biggest conflict is homophobia. Given that the book is set in the 90s, homophobia was rampant then. The book exhibits two very different sides of sexuality—owning it and being ashamed of it. On one hand, we have Patrick who is proud of his sexuality, and on the other hand, we have Brad, Patrick’s ex-boyfriend who is ashamed of whom he is and grapples with internalized homophobia. He goes as far as to call Patrick a homophobic slur one day in the cafeteria, which leads to a brawl between him, Charlie and Patrick.
There are also some other issues the book deals with subtly. The first of these is abusive relationships. When Charlie sees his sister getting hit by her boyfriend, he questions why she chooses to stay with him and why people, in general, stick to those people who hurt them? His answer comes in the form of Mr Anderson’s iconic quote, “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
Another subject the author tackles without ever mentioning it is toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity was (like homophobia), rampant in the 90s where men were mocked for crying, expressing their feelings and complimenting each other, which were seemingly effeminate traits. In such circumstances, having a male protagonist (and even his friends like Patrick) cry openly is quite unusual. It is even more heartwarming to see Charlie’s close relationships with his family and expressing physical and verbal affection towards them.
Outdated ideas on women
Perhaps the only drawback of this book is the outdated ideas and perceptions of women that it presents. Patrick tells Charlie that women want men to be a challenge so that they can change them, just like a mother needs a child to fuss over. Not only this, but Charlie repeatedly says that he finds ‘unconventionally beautiful’ women the best, and supermodels strange.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a thought-provoking, unbelievably raw book that makes you feel a roller-coaster of emotions—happy, sad, pitiful, angry, worried, confused and most importantly, makes you feel infinite. Published in 1999 this book by Stephen Chbosky is not your run-of-the-mill happy teenage story. It is depressing, grey, confusing and downright heartbreaking. Yet, it has its happy moments and will take you through the tumultuous journey of being a teenager.
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