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Monday, 11 March 2013

Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (a review)

I am a happy member of a quite unusual book club.

Our book club is not only "open genre" (meaning we are not confined to the whims of the Oprah Book Club sticker or any other such tyrannical restrictions on the genres we read), but we are also a non-prescriptive book club.  Meaning, we are not all forced to read the same (awful) book each month.  We are allowed to choose the book we read, which we at least partially attempt to match to a theme that is randomly selected at the end of each meeting.

This month, book club elected not to pick a genre (such as romance, sci-fi, etc.) like we usually do.  Instead, we swapped favorites.

Of course there's always the risk that one person's favorite is another's complete and total NIGHTMARE.  The book that you treasure and love with all your heart might stir the same feelings in your friends, or it might make them want to vomit in their lap.  Or some reaction in between.

Anyway, we risked it all.

My selection then was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, a book which I knew absolutely nothing about, except for the fact that it was recently made into a film (which I have not seen).

Quite the minimalist cover.
Not knowing what to expect from Wallflower, I took a glance at the reviews on the back cover.  One of the critics described it as a combination of Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace.

At which point I hit the floor and started wailing and pounding my fists.

Because there is very little in the world of literature that I dislike more than Catcher in the Rye (with the possible exception of Jane Eyre, but that's another rant for another day).  Holden Caulfield is the preeminent prophet of the emo, and later the hipster, teenager.  The book is horrifically boring, a forced, hypocritically "phony" mess, and completely repugnant to me in every conceivable way.  And A Separate Peace, which I was force-fed in high school, was not that much better.  I felt as if I may have walked into a minefield of all the things that I despise about literature contained in one slim chartreuse volume.

But mercifully, as I started into Wallflower I actually found myself enjoying it.  The letter-style format is never one that I've been particularly fond of, but in this case it is quite effective.  The fits and starts of action and dialogue are suitable to Charlie, a high school freshman who has the extraordinary good luck to befriend the older wallflowers at his school.  The motley crew take Charlie under their wing and introduce him to all the perks and dangers of high school life.  While this does require that one has to suspend belief that a group of 17-18 year olds would want to keep company with a 15 year old (just saying, do YOU know anyone that's happened to?  I sure as hell don't).  I very much enjoyed reading about Charlie's various misadventures in dating, drugs and general survival in the high school environment.

AND THEN... the book had to go and get all Catcher in the Rye on me.

In the final chapter (or letter, whatever), Charlie uncovers a hidden truth that basically takes the whole happy adventure and converts it into a super-depressing nightmare.  This completely blew me away as a reader and actually really pissed me off.  I was not impressed with the book at this point and almost gave up on it.  However, the epilogue to the work very much helped with this sudden twist, and returned the book to it's usual course and tone.  The epilogue basically saved the book for me, and prevented it from turning into just another melodramatic, "shocking just to be shocking" high school life book.   

So overall, despite being unpleasantly jerked around in the last twenty pages, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is overall a good read in the genre of "average high school life" books.  I don't know that I'll see the film, but I would definitely recommend the book to others.

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