SPOILERS: In this review, I discuss things that aren’t revealed until almost the end of the book. Consider yourself warned.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about young people’s fiction, and whether we have a responsibility to police what’s being read. And if we do, who does that responsibility fall to? I know I get a lot of hits from people searching for reviews of The Hunger Games, and I suspect they’re coming from parents who want to be engaging with what their kids are reading. So I guess part of the responsibility is with parents, and part is with book bloggers and media, who are looked to as authorities on these kind of things. This might not be the case, but I felt the need to blog as soon as I’d finished Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Having recently been adapted for film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower occupies two places in the Dymock’s Top 10 for this week. One place for the original edition, and one for the film-tie-in cover with Emma Watson and whatshisname and whatshisname.
The novel’s main character is Charlie – a misfit freshman, whose quiet demeanour and uncommon attentiveness to the world makes it difficult for him to find friends. Charlie thinks he’s settling in for a miserable, lonely high school experience until he meets Patrick and Sam. They help Charlie “participate”, bringing him out of his shell. Charlie has the doubts and fears and shocks and surprises that all teenagers do, with sex and drugs and family and literature. He’s a smart kid, and his outlook is switched on – hence, the “Wallflower”. He “sees things and understands”.
The novel is told through letters to an unknown recipient (“Dear Friend,” writes Charlie). Charlie likes a good digression, and this works well to help us learn about his life. Throughout his letters, he talks about his Aunt Helen, who died in a car crash. Up until almost the very end of the novel, we see Aunt Helen as tragic figure; a fallen comrade, a lost confidant much like Charlie’s best friend Michael who committed suicide the year before. At the end of the novel, however, we learn that Charlie was sexually abused by his Aunt Helen. Through a hospital stay and eventual recovery, we are told that this trauma is what has held Charlie back, and caused his awkwardness and pain.
I was perfectly happy with Aunt Helen as a sad, absent, friendly figure. By introducing the element of abuse (and in such a seemingly sudden way), I feel like Chbosky severely undermines Charlie’s natural teenage struggle.
Adolescence is a tough time for everyone. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’re probably also a person who looked to fictional characters for comfort during your teenage years. I know I did. Looking for Alibrandi, The Catcher in the Rye, Guitar Highway Rose. Those characters had a shit time of it, and they got me. They reassured me that a difficult time in your teens is pretty universal.
I still look to fiction for comfort at times now. Often, people with mundane stories are those I find the most comforting. (See Girls character Hannah Horvath as current mundane-story-comfort-crush). Instead of feeling less than worthy of my feelings, people like Holden Caulfield and Josie Alibrandi made me feel like there was some hope. The disappointment of Stephen Chbosky’s book is that it seems to do the compulsory teenage discomfort so well, but then puts it down to something dysfunctional.
In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky seems to glorify and prioritise serious trauma as a worthy source for that universal pain, and no amount of pithy (and thoroughly wonderful) lines about bad times and feeling infinite can undo this overriding message for me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower lost me when it detracted from my struggle, and the struggle of every young person I’ve ever known.
In opposition to Charlie are the friends he finds through Patrick and Sam. While Patrick battles with the world’s reaction to his homosexuality, his troubles seem to be explained away by a cafeteria fight and a little too much booze – these are presented less as problems for Patrick than they are problems for Charlie. Nobody in Charlie’s world seems to have the right to be thoroughly messed up, unless they’ve got some terrible traumatic experience to back it up. If they don’t, then their troubles are fleeting and absolutely surmountable.
We all have the right to being a hideous mess at times. We all have the right to a painful and shitty adolescence. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t my place to weigh in on what I think young people should be reading. But being a teenager is hard for everyone, and I would rather see stories that validate that for young people.
10/02/2013 at 12:48 pm
Ah, nicely done! You make a really valid point.
11/02/2013 at 10:11 pm
11/02/2013 at 3:10 pm
I’d never thought of this book this way, but you make a great point. Struggling and being miserable is a totally normal part of being a teenager, and the revelation of Charlie’s abuse does undermine that message. I’ve always thought tossing the abuse by Aunt Helen in at the end was odd and unnecessary because it doesn’t really add anything, but I never considered how it really detracts from the book. Great post 🙂
11/02/2013 at 10:12 pm
I’m glad I gave you some new food for thought, Leah!
01/03/2013 at 6:15 pm
I’m sort of torn on this. While I do get really frustrated with YA books (and shows: I’m looking at you, Glee) inserting tragedy or drama in order to “amp up” the turbulent nature of adolescence, I feel like reading Perks it was clear from very early on that there was something bigger going on, and that Charlie’s troubles and pains could not just be explained away by teenage awkwardness. I think Perks is an incredibly psychological book, more than just a book about teenagers, and I have to say that books that explore women sexually abusing men or boys are exceptionally uncommon. Being familiar with indicators of sexual abuse, I feel like saying that this book would be better without this abuse, when for me it was present throughout the entire book (I feel as though Charlie displays classic signs of abuse throughout the novel) and when it is the sole example I can think of right now that has the guts to explore something that not many people take seriously or are educated about, could be kind of of dismissive.
There are many books that have lost me after “jumping the shark” with something I couldn’t relate to. If I feel a storyline has some sort of tragedy or drama inserted for the same of sensationalism that really bothers me, and there are times when I just can’t connect at all to characters and feel isolated from their struggles. However, I feel like your or our inability in this case to connect with this element of Charlie’s pain does not mean that the author made a bad choice. There are lots of examples of books I might have enjoyed more if they had been, well, a different book entirely, sure. But that feels like a really restrictive and redundant form of criticism.
01/03/2013 at 6:23 pm
What a fabulous comment!
You might be right – perhaps it is an issue of not being able to relate. It hadn’t even occurred to me that this is one of the rare books that looks at sexual abuse by a female. I would love to hear about this from the perspective of someone who CAN relate. While to me it just feels like sensationalism, perhaps I’m not the book’s target audience.
I’m not suggesting that the book be something else entirely – I got the sense throughout it that it was trying to be one thing, and then in the end I was met with something else entirely. What I’m calling for here isn’t for the book to be something ELSE, but for the book to have the confidence to just be itself. As above though, perhaps I have missed the book’s point.
10/03/2013 at 7:40 pm
A Guitar Highway Rose fan!! Off topic, I know, but I saw that and it took me back in time — loved that book!
10/03/2013 at 8:17 pm
Guitar Highway Rose is probably the main reason I got my nose pierced at 17 😛
10/03/2013 at 8:22 pm
Haha! You guys are great. I do have a copy on my shelf still, just for nostalgia.