The American high school/coming of age/Teen drama is a genre that is overflowing with books and it is one that has a dedicated and passionate audience. Some are universally loved and some certainly aren’t, however there is one that remains, to this day, the gold standard, a book head and shoulders above the rest in the Suzanne Collins-John Green era of YA novels – Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chbosky himself sent out a tweet in 2013 describing this era as the “golden age of Young Adult literature“, a tweet that was met with total agreement from his followers, with many saying that Chbosky himself was the catalyst for this with the publication of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 1999. It is a book which has since created an indelible mark on the literary world and has resonated with millions of readers worldwide, myself included.
When I first read the book, aged 16, I near enough immediately connected to the novel’s main protagonist and narrator, Charlie. The book tells Charlie’s story through a series of letters written to an anonymous recipient, the letters recount the events of his life as he enters his freshman year of high school and deals with the ensuing relationships with those closest to him and struggles with his mental state. It is a perfect encapsulation of young adulthood, not since The Catcher in the Rye has a book so successfully and realistically portrayed a teenager’s struggles with life. A protagonist who suffers in silence, Charlie is a heartbreaking yet inspiring figure who gives a voice to the voiceless.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower seems to cover every aspect of teenage life; sex, sexuality, drugs, drinking, friendships, relationships, introversion, everything is covered in Chbosky’s novel. As a deer-in-the-headlights, unassuming and introverted teenager myself, the book provided me with a companion; someone who understood me, someone who thought of and talked of high school in the same way as me, someone who struggled just in the same way that I did. Had I read this book at a younger age, I wouldn’t have understood it. Had I read it at an older age, I wouldn’t have connected to it in the way that I did.
Chbosky provides a raw and stripped back presentation of what it’s like to be a wallflower in the boisterous and chaotic party of teenage life, to have no one notice you and to feel both happy and sad at the same time and not understand how. He provides a voice for those of us who face the struggles that Charlie does.
As mentioned before, I was 16 when I first read the novel and, to this day, it remains one of my all time favourites. I had endured a tough year before I read the book and it really gave me a whole world to escape into and connect to when all else felt just a little too alien for my liking, these were characters who were just as troubled as me, these were characters who struggled with their own self image and self esteem just as I did, these were characters who struggled with friendships and relationship just as I did. But as someone who, like Charlie, has witnessed the negative affects of sex, drugs and drinking on friends close to me, Charlie provided me with a way of understanding how to react to this and how to help my friends as well.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has stuck with me to this day because it’s still relevant to me, if you connect with this book at some point then you will never disconnect from it again. Four years on and the book still holds a very special place in my heart and still resonates with me. I’m still troubled, I still struggle with my own self image and self esteem, I still struggle with friendships and relationships, but Charlie and the gang will still struggle with me and the life affirming and uplifting nature of the book will still give me optimism.
“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.”