4.5 stars overall / 3 stars audio narration
Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie is navigating through the strange worlds of love, drugs, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, and dealing with the loss of a good friend and his favorite aunt.
** spoiler alert ** Before starting to review this book, I read a lot of reviews on it to get a sense of what others were saying about it. This may be cheating, but in this case, I was having a lot of trouble coalescing a lot of impressions into any sort of articulate analysis, and reading other reviews has really helped me organize my thoughts.
I had a lot of personal reactions to this book because of the fact that so many of the references were cultural staples during the time I was a high school student. Contrary to what some reviewers stated – that the cultural references were out of date and/or unrealistic, I think they were pretty much spot on. I was in college during 1991-92, but as a high schooler I remember the cult of Rocky Horror (though I was not a part of it), and I remember the whispering, bullying, shunning, etc. that those on the fringes received in high school. At that time, the fringes included homosexuals, artsy types, druggies (and those who dabbled), super smarties, and of course all the other standard groups. There is no question that taunting, bullying and the like happened to the fringes kids. There is no question in my mind that Charlie would have experienced that type of treatment. I don’t know how high schools are now, but I expect things have not changed a whole lot with regard to kids who are weird, unfashionable, or different. It is certainly realistic to me that oddballs tend to draw to each other, especially if they have any kind of kindred feelings and kindness toward others like them as a result. Chbosky was hardly speaking of the mainstream high school kids here, so that the mismatched element to this group of friends seems right to me.
With specific regard to Patrick & Brad, and how they navigated their relationship, I think to some extent you have to have lived through the 80s and early 90s to understand some of their behaviors. Attitudes were a lot different toward homosexuality…it wasn’t as mainstream as it is today, especially in high school. There absolutely were known areas to go for the purpose of casual sex. It wasn’t at all easy to “come out.” Additionally, this was before there was a widespread understand of sexually transmitted disease, and the risky behaviors (meeting in the park after dark to hook up with an unknown person) that made one a high risk candidate.
I think Charlie’s voice rang absolutely true in the book. He was smart, weird, emotional and broken. He felt completely responsible for the death of his Aunt Helen because she died on his birthday while out to buy him a present. What teenager wouldn’t feel like that to some extent, especially a teen who had other emotional and psychological issues (as we learn at the end). I certainly did not expect that turn of events, but in the end, it explained a lot about Charlie and his fragility.
I also think that, again contrary to what some reviews suggest, it was completely realistic for Charlie’s parents to be somewhat naive to what was going on in his life. For a kid who had emotional & psychological problems – from which he appeared to have largely recovered – they were realistically and understandably glad that he had made some friends. He had a teacher at school who showed particular interest in him because he was so smart…as a parent, especially one who was unaware of the molestation, this would be a welcome experience. I remember going through high school and being pretty much autonomous when it came to my academic decisions…not surprising when you’re a responsible student, and Charlie was definitely that. Now I do think that they were ridiculously out of touch when it came to his social schedule, but there are a lot of kids out there who, at 15 or 16, have an inordinate amount of freedom (and free time). It seems understandable to me that this inattention to his activities is part & parcel of their characters, and also of their happiness at seeing him make some new friends…especially after his best friend committed suicide.
Finally, it is easy to see why this book created controversy. While I didn’t see it as encouraging deviant behavior necessarily, I can see how the fact that it was accepted and there weren’t really any negative consequences could make Charlie’s 9th grade experience seem exotic and desirable. He was essentially a good kid who went through a lot of crap, so this whole situation is an anomaly. But then again, back in my high school days when we were reading Catcher in the Rye (to which Perks of Being a Wallflower has been compared), Holden Caulfield’s experiences were an anomaly as well. I don’t know that I’d be comfortable as a parent with it being on a required reading list, but I’m not a believer in censoring lit, nor in being an uninvolved parent. I believe it should be available, and parents should know what their kids are reading so they can, when necessary, talk about it.
All in all, I loved this book. I loved the epistolary format. I loved that Charlie had an emotional outlet. I loved that his family pulled together when it counted. I loved that he had a teacher who was interested in him for his brains, and who was not a pervert. I loved that he had friends like Sam & Patrick…because there are kind kids out there, and there is always a net gain when people are kind to each other. And I loved most of all that he recovered. To me, that may be the most important part of this whole story…that you can recover, that suicide is not the answer, and that help is available when you need it.