When I was a senior in high school, someone handed me a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writer and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky’s first novel. Today, I still come back to it, still moved to tears by its main character, Charlie, and the troubles he undergoes over the course of his first year of high school. Although the book is sometimes compared unfavorably to the teen angst “masterpiece” The Catcher in the Rye, it is an extremely poignant story that speaks to its audience in much the same way that Salinger’s book does. Despite the setting in now-distant 1991, The Perks of Being a Wallflower perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be a teenager today, and I think both teens and young adults will find it captivating, moving, and maybe even life-changing.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells its story through the letters Charlie sends to an unnamed third party. This format makes it seem as though Charlie is speaking directly to the reader, which is perhaps why so many people have such a personal connection to the story. A shy and intelligent freshman still reeling from the suicide of a classmate, Charlie writes of his untamable emotions, his family history (including the death of a mysterious aunt who will later haunt the narrative), and his growing friendships with Samantha and Patrick, step-siblings who epitomize everything Charlie wants from life. The details of the story are relevant to anyone who has experienced high school—experimentation in all things, from music and literature to drugs and sexuality—but it is Chbosky’s perfect grasp of teenage emotions that makes the novel stand out.
While the first generation of the book’s teenage readers have now graduated into adulthood, new groups of readers continue to discover it. One of the things I like best about the book is that Chbosky describes the life of a teenager without any attempt to provide a layer of knowing adulthood over it. If an adult reader stumbles over the occasional example of unrestrained teenage angst, or even the youthful and earnest “infinite” line made famous by the film adaptation’s commercials, young readers see that awkwardness as truthfulness.
Since the novel’s first publication in 1999, it has gone on to become a standard in young adult literature; in 2007, it had already sold 700,000 copies, with its slender size and eye-catchingly minimal cover attracting readers in droves. It has also gained a reputation for being banned and has appeared on the American Library Association’s “Top Ten Challenged Books” lists frequently since its publication, most recently in 2013. Its controversial nature, however, has not ruined its good reputation; the 2012 film version, directed by Chbosky himself and starring a cast of promising young actors, was a critical and commercial success.