The Perks of Being a Wallflower
|Genre||Young adult novel/Epistolary novel|
|February 1, 1999|
|Media type||Print (Paperback) and Audiobook|
|Pages||256 pp (first edition paperback)
224 pp (regular edition paperback)
|LC Class||PS3553.H3469 P47 1999|
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age epistolary novel written by American writer Stephen Chbosky. It was first published on February 1, 1999, by Pocket Books. The story is narrated by an introverted teenager who goes by the alias of "Charlie". He describes various life experiences through a series of letters to an anonymous stranger. Set in the early 1990s, the story follows Charlie through his freshman year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. Intelligent beyond his years, he is an unconventional thinker; yet, as the story begins, it is revealed that Charlie is also shy and unpopular.
Chbosky took five years to publish The Perks of Being a Wallflower from the moment he first envisioned the book. He created the characters and other important aspects of the story based on his own youth memories. The novel addresses themes that permeate adolescence, including introversion, sexuality, and use of drugs. Chbosky makes several references to other literary works, films, and pop culture in general discussing its significance for teenagers.
Despite being Chbosky's first book, it was a commercial success; however, it was banned in some American schools for its content and received mixed reception by literary critics. In 2012, Chbosky, acting as director, adapted the novel into a film of the same name, which starred Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, and Emma Watson. Its production boosted the sales of the book, which started to be frequently featured on The New York Times Best Seller list.
The book begins with a very quiet, emotionally sensitive, 15-year-old boy named Charlie writing letters to an unknown recipient about his life. He discusses his first year at high school, while grappling with two traumatic experiences from his past: the suicide of his only middle-school friend, Michael, a year before, as well as the death of his favorite aunt, Helen, during his early childhood.
Charlie's English teacher, Bill, notices Charlie's passion for reading and writing, and, throughout the novel, he assigns Charlie additional books and reports outside of the normal curriculum. Although Charlie is a wallflower, he is befriended by two exciting seniors: Patrick and Sam. Patrick is dating a closeted football player, Brad, in secret; Sam is Patrick's step-sister. Charlie avoids admitting that he is extremely attracted to Sam, who has a boyfriend. Charlie is absorbed into their group of friends and begins experiencing a vivid new life; he drinks alcohol, tries drugs, and even starts smoking. As he engages more with his new senior friends, he begins to control the traumatic flashbacks he has had about his aunt Helen, who apparently died in a car crash while on the way to buying him a birthday gift. Although she is in another relationship, Sam gives Charlie a single kiss when he tells her that he has never been kissed before.
After a member of the friend group, Mary Elizabeth, asks Charlie to their school's Sadie Hawkins dance, he reluctantly agrees to start a relationship with her, but soon dislikes how one-sided the relationship becomes. During a game of truth or dare, he is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and kisses Sam, which causes Mary Elizabeth to storm out and the rest of the group to alienate him. Patrick recommends that Charlie stay away from Sam for a while. Charlie's debilitating flashbacks return and he begins to see a psychiatrist for the second time in his life.
Meanwhile, Patrick and Brad's relationship is discovered by Brad's abusive father. The following day, during lunch, Patrick is heckled by the football players until even Brad joins in and calls Patrick a "faggot," causing Patrick to attack him. The football players team up against Patrick until Charlie intervenes and stops the fight, winning him respect among Sam and her friends once more. Patrick takes Charlie to a park where gay men come to engage in secret sexual activities; he kisses Charlie impulsively and then apologizes, but Charlie is understanding and supports Patrick in recovering from his broken romance with Brad.
As the school year comes to a close, Charlie feels anxiety over losing his older friends, especially Sam. Sam is preparing to leave for a pre-college summer program and has discovered that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. Charlie helps Sam to pack and they discuss his feelings for her. She becomes angry that he never acted on his feelings. They make out, and as she touches his inner thigh, he becomes scared. Later, he sees her and his other friends off to college. The next day, Charlie is bombarded by memories of his aunt Helen touching him the way that Sam did.
In the epilogue, Charlie is discovered that night by his parents in a trance-like state and admitted to a mental hospital. It emerges that Helen sexually abused him when he was little, but his love for her (and empathy for her own troubled youth) caused him to repress these memories. After two months, he is released, and Sam and Patrick come to see him. Charlie comes to terms with his past, saying that "even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there". He stops writing letters and decides instead to "participate" in life.
Background and writing
The idea of the book came from when Chbosky was experiencing a rough time. He was going through a "bad breakup" that led him to need an answer to the question "why do such good people let themselves get treated so badly" and Charlie was his ultimate answer. Chbosky said his idea for the book started in school and grew from another book he was working on. When he wrote "I guess that's just one of the perks of being a wallflower", he "realized that somewhere in that title was the kid I was really trying to find." He started it in the summer of 1996 while in college; after two drafts, he concluded it in the summer of 1998. The idea of using anonymous letter came from a real experience; while on senior year in high school, he wrote an anonymous letter to Stewart Stern. Chbosky wrote how Rebel Without a Cause influenced him; a year and a half later, Stern found Chbosky and became his mentor.
Charlie is loosely based on Chbosky; Chbosky put on the book "countless details" about the time he lived in Pittsburgh. He said that "Charlie was [his] hope in the form of a character," and has described Charlie as the "closest [character] to [his] heart". For the other characters, Chbosky said he took "pieces of real people in [his] life." From that, he focused on people's struggles and things they are most passionate about and attempted to "hone in [on] the essence of each." The characters of Sam and Patrick were created as an "amalgamate and celebration" of different people Chbosky met in his life. Sam was based on the girls he used to hear confessions from, while Patrick was based on "all the kids I knew who were gay and finding their way to their own identity."
Style and themes
Although it is also read by adults, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is targeted towards a teenagers audience. It is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an anonymous character. Chbosky said that the progression of the story through letters "feels intimate" and is "like [Charlie] is talking to you." He also thought the letters could help him keep the story cohesive, as "to convey the highs and lows of being young"—"One day, you're on top of the world and you’ve had the greatest of times," declared Chbosky.
Critics have identified some main themes to be teenage reality and nostalgia for adults. David Edelstein said that Chbosky captures the "feeling [that] you belong when among friends, yet you'd soon be alone" and notes that "the pain of loss... [is] almost as intense as the bliss." He believes "it's nostalgia with an emphasis on nostos, pain [sic]." Another critic, Marty Beckerman, said the reason why The Perks of Being a Wallflower connects with kids is that it's real[;] the situations that occur are "so universal and happen to so many teenagers." Another main point Chbosky wanted to express was respect for teens. He said he wanted to "validate and respect and celebrate what [teenagers] are going through every day." Chbosky said that the novel is for "anyone who's felt like an outcast."
The book addresses a wide range of themes, including sex and drugs, but it does not criticize or glorify these subjects. Other themes that permeate the work are friendship, body image, first love, suicide, eating disorders, and sexuality. Chbosky also discusses the importance of entertainment in adolescence; he said, "Books, songs, and movies are more than entertainment when we're young. They help all of us discover who we are, what we believe, and what we hope our life can be." References go through bands The Smiths and Fleetwood Mac, novels This Side of Paradise, On the Road, To Kill a Mockingbird, and musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Release and reception
The first novel by Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was first published on February 1, 1999 by Pocket Books through its MTV Books imprint. It soon became the imprint best-selling book, was included on school reading lists, and gained a cult following. However, it was not received by critics unanimously. Publishers Weekly deemed it "trite" and said it deals with "standard teenage issues" in which "Chbosky infuses a droning insistence on Charlie's supersensitive disposition." On the other hand, Kirkus Review stated it has "the right combination of realism and uplift", although criticized the "rip-off" of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Other reviewers did the same comparation; in response, Chbosky stated that he "was not trying to mimic his style as a writer". He, however, sees "how readers could compare Charlie to Salinger's Holden Caulfield", but he thinks "they are very different people with unique problems and perspectives".
Francisca Goldsmith of School Library Journal praised how it "cleverly" makes the readers the recipients of Charlie's letters, as well as declared it "will engage teen readers for years to come." Brangien Davies, in a review for Amazon.com, praised it saying "What is most notable about this funny, touching, memorable first novel from Stephen Chbosky is the resounding accuracy with which the author captures the voice of a boy teetering on the brink of adulthood." Common Sense Media's Kate Pavao praised it for discussing relevant themes for teenagers and declared "readers will find themselves quickly feeling sorry for the protagonist and worrying about him throughout his transformative journey." Writing for The A.V. Club, Marah Eakin affirmed that for an adult "Perks suffers from an overabundance of pure, raw angst." For her, "Unlike some more arrested development-friendly YA fare like Harry Potter, Perks speaks to a more specific age range and does it well."
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has appeared on the American Library Association's list of the 10 most frequently challenged books for its content six times. In one instance, a Wisconsin school board declined the action to ban the book, angering local parents. The Glen Ellyn District 41 school board in suburban Chicago voted in a unanimous vote to reinstate the book after it was pulled from eighth-grade classrooms at Hadley Junior High School earlier due to a parent's objection to the book's sexual content. In an interview, Chbosky stated that he knew of two specific school boards that have already banned the book, Massachusetts and Long Island. Furthermore, Chbosky "didn't write it to be a controversial book" and is "surprised" that it has been banned.
With the announce of a film adaptation the book gained more attention, reaching the The New York Times bestseller lists. It first entered the "Children's Paperpack Books" category on the June 23, 2012 list, and had 1.5 million copies in print as of November 2012. As of the May 11, 2014 list, it has been featured on The New York Times "Top 10" list for 71 non-consecutive weeks; on the list of September 14, 2014, it appeared among the "Top 15". In addition, it has been translated into 13 languages, which were published in 16 different countries.
Since the release of the novel, Chbosky stated he has received offers to have it adapted into a film but he refuse all offers as he felt he "owed the fans a movie that was worthy of their love for the book." In 2010, the production company Mr. Mudd started to develop its film adaptation, and Chbosky was hired to write an adapted screenplay and to direct the film by producers John Malkovich, Lianne Halfon, and Russell Smith. The film was shot in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area from May 9 to June 29, 2011, and starred Logan Lerman as Charlie, Nina Dobrev as Charlie's sister, Candace, Ezra Miller as Patrick, and Emma Watson as Sam. On September 8, it was premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, and it was released theatrically in the United States by Summit Entertainment on September 21. It has received "generally favorable reviews," according to Metacritic, which assigns an average score of 67 out of 100, based on 36 critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports a 85% of critics approval among the 151 reviews accounted. Comercially-wise, it grossed over 33 million worldwide after a 13 million production budget.
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