This is the first time I’m going to break my rule about reviewing books I’ve read before, but in this case it’s really justified. I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I was a junior in high school. I distinctly remember loving it and thinking that it was a great book, but then I did something inexplicable and didn’t read it again until this fall. Why would I go for over 10 years without a reread?
I saw the preview for the movie in the summer, which reminded me of it, so when we were home later that month I hunted it up from my old books and brought it back. I cannot accurately describe how much I love it.
The book is made up of letters, written from Charlie, a fifteen year old rising freshman whose only friend just killed himself a few weeks ago. We don’t know who Charlie is writing to and he doesn’t either – as he explains in the first letter,
I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that.
And amazingly, it’s a great idea. The whole book is Charlie’s letters to a person he hasn’t met, addressed to “Dear Friend” and signed “Love Always, Charlie.” It’s better than a diary book – Charlie has a reason to explain everything to a stranger, he’s not writing in shorthand in a book to himself, so there’s more meat and detail, and you see right off that Charlie is scrupulously honest with his friend. The set up is so engaging and sweet, much like Charlie himself, that the story flies by.
The book takes place over 1991 and 1992, was published in 1999, and I read it for the first time in 2000. Since then I can see from the internets lots of references to its “cult following”, which is well deserved. Charlie is an extremely odd, deeply sympathetic character, with an open innocence about the world that allows him to be the ultimate narrator – in some ways and at some times he is almost a vacuum. The other characters who surround him are strange too, but also surprisingly compassionate for kids, and that indeed becomes one of the central points.
It’s different from so many of those “I-don’t-fit-in-in-high-school-loner-boy-here’s-a-girl-whose-function-is-to-make-me-appreciate-life” books. (Those are the YA Fiction version of my least favorite film genre: “She’s-too-young-and-quirky-for-him-but-teaches-him-too-love-also-she-has-cancer-and-it’s-autumn.”) This is not YA Fiction, the narrator is 15 and 16 over the course of the book, but it’s not a book for kids.
Characters are rounded – no one is there to be a plot device for Charlie, and revelations (personal and plot) are earned. It’s a very short book and takes just a few hours to read, but it’s thick with detail and feeling. In the next 12 years I’ll be rereading it much more frequently.