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 by American writer Stephen Chbosky which was first published on February 1, 1999 by Pocket Books. Its narrator is an introverted teenager known as Charlie, who describes his experiences in a series of letters to an anonymous stranger. Set in the early 1990s, the novel follows Charlie through his freshman year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. Intelligent beyond his years, he is an unconventional thinker; as the story begins, the reader learns that Charlie is also shy and unpopular.
Chbosky took five years to develop and publish The Perks of Being a Wallflower, creating the characters and other aspects of the story from his own memories. The novel addresses themes permeating adolescence, including introversion, sexuality and drug use. Chbosky makes several references to other literary works, films and pop culture in general.
Although Chbosky's first book was a commercial success, it was banned in some American schools for its content and received mixed reviews from literary critics. In 2012, he adapted and directed a film version starring Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson. The film boosted the novel's sales, and the book reached The New York Times Best Seller list.
The story begins with a quiet, sensitive, 15-year-old boy named Charlie writing letters about his life to an unknown recipient. He discusses his first year at high school, grappling with two traumatic experiences from his past: the suicide of his only middle-school friend, Michael, a year before, and the death of his Aunt Helen (his favorite aunt) during his early childhood.
His English teacher Bill notices Charlie's passion for reading and writing, and assigns him extracurricular books and reports. Although he is a wallflower, Charlie is befriended by two seniors: Patrick and Sam. Patrick is secretly dating Brad, a closeted football player, and Sam is Patrick's stepsister. Charlie does not admit his attraction to Sam, who already has a boyfriend. He is accepted by their group of friends and begins experiencing a new life, experimenting with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. As Charlie engages with his new friends he can control his flashbacks of Aunt Helen, who died in a car crash on her way to buy him a birthday gift. Sam gives him a single kiss when he tells her that he has never been kissed.
Mary Elizabeth, a member of the group, invites Charlie to the school's Sadie Hawkins dance and he begins a desultory relationship with her. During a game of Truth or Dare, when dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room he kisses Sam; Mary Elizabeth storms out, the rest of the group shuns him and Patrick suggests that Charlie stay away from Sam for a while. His flashbacks return, and he goes back to seeing a psychiatrist.
Patrick and Brad's relationship is discovered by Brad's abusive father. When Patrick is bullied by the football players at lunch the next day and Brad calls him a "faggot," he attacks him. Charlie breaks up the fight, again winning the respect of Sam and her friends. Patrick brings him to a park where gay men engage in sexual activity; he kisses Charlie impulsively and then apologizes, but Charlie understands that he is recovering from his romance with Brad.
As the school year ends, Charlie is anxious about losing his older friends—especially Sam, who is leaving for a summer college-preparatory program and has learned that her boyfriend cheated on her. When Charlie helps her pack, they talk about his feelings for her; she is angry that he never acted on them. They begin to kiss, but when Sam touches his inner thigh he becomes frightened. Charlie sees her and his other friends off to college, and is bombarded the next day by memories of Aunt Helen touching him as Sam did.
In an epilogue, Charlie is discovered that night by his parents in a trancelike state. He is catatonic and does not show any movement despite being hit reluctantly by his father. After being admitted to a mental hospital, it emerges that Helen sexually abused him when he was young, but his love for her (and empathy for her troubled youth) made him repress those memories. This psychological trauma explains his flashbacks and derealization phases throughout the book. In two months Charlie is released, and Sam and Patrick visit him. He comes to terms with his past: "Even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there". Charlie decides to "participate" in life, and his letter-writing ends.
Background and writing
The idea for the novel came from a difficult period in Chbosky's life. He was experiencing a "bad breakup" which led him to ask, "Why do such good people let themselves get treated so badly?" The story began when Chbosky was in school, evolving from another book on which he was working. When he wrote the sentence, "I guess that's just one of the perks of being a wallflower" he "realized that somewhere in that ... was the kid I was really trying to find." Chbosky began writing the novel in the summer of 1996 while he was in college, finishing it two drafts later in the summer of 1998. The idea of anonymous letters came from a real experience; during his senior year in high school, Chbosky wrote an anonymous letter to Stewart Stern about how Rebel Without a Cause had influenced him. A year and a half later, Stern found Chbosky and became his mentor.
Charlie is loosely based on the author, and Chbosky included "countless details" in the novel from the time he lived in Pittsburgh. He said, "Charlie was [his] hope in the form of a character" and has described him as the "closest [character] to [his] heart". The other characters were "pieces of real people in [his] life"; Chbosky focused on people's struggles and what they are passionate about, attempting to "hone in [on] the essence of each." The characters of Sam and Patrick were an "amalgamate and celebration" of several people Chbosky has met; Sam was based on girls who confided in him, and Patrick was "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 at a teenaged audience. A series of letters from Charlie to an anonymous character, Chbosky said that the story device "feels intimate" and is "like [Charlie] is talking to you." He thought the letters would help him keep the story cohesive, "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".
Critics have identified primary themes of teenage reality and (for adults) nostalgia. According to David Edelstein, 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 ... it's nostalgia with an emphasis on nostos, pain [sic]." Marty Beckerman said that The Perks of Being a Wallflower connects with young people because its scenes are "so universal and happen to so many teenagers." Chbosky wanted to convey respect for teenagers, to "validate and respect and celebrate what [teenagers] are going through every day", and said that the novel is for "anyone who's felt like an outcast."
The book addresses a range of themes (including sex and drugs) dispassionately. Other themes include friendship, body image, first love, suicide, eating disorders and sexuality. Chbosky appreciates the importance of entertainment in adolescence: "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." Cultural references are musical (The Smiths and Fleetwood Mac), literary (This Side of Paradise, On the Road and To Kill a Mockingbird) and theatrical (The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Publication and reception
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was first published on February 1, 1999 by Pocket Books through its MTV Books imprint. It became the subsidiary's best-selling book, was included on school reading lists and gathered a cult following. Critical response was mixed; Publishers Weekly called the novel "trite", dealing with "standard teenage issues" in which "Chbosky infuses a droning insistence on Charlie's supersensitive disposition." Although Kirkus Review said it had "the right combination of realism and uplift", the reviewer criticized Chbosky's "rip-off" of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Although other reviewers made similar comparisons, Chbosky said he "was not trying to mimic [Salinger's] style as a writer"; he saw "how readers could compare Charlie to Salinger's Holden Caulfield", but "they are very different people with unique problems and perspectives".
Francisca Goldsmith of the School Library Journal said the novel "cleverly" makes the readers the recipients of Charlie's letters, and it "will engage teen readers for years to come." In an Amazon.com review, Brangien Davies wrote: "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 its relevant themes for teenagers: "Readers will find themselves quickly feeling sorry for the protagonist and worrying about him throughout his transformative journey." For The A.V. Club, Marah Eakin wrote that although for an adult "Perks suffers from an overabundance of pure, raw angst ... 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 six times on the American Library Association's list of 10 most-frequently-challenged books for its content. A Wisconsin school board refused to ban the book, angering local parents, and the Glen Ellyn District 41 school board in suburban Chicago unanimously voted to reinstate the novel after it was removed from eighth-grade classrooms at Hadley Junior High School because of a parent's objection to its sexual content. In an interview, Chbosky said that he knew of two school boards which have banned the book (in Massachusetts and on Long Island). Since he "didn't write it to be a controversial book," he was "surprised" by the bans.
With the announcement of a film adaptation the novel received more attention, reaching the New York Times bestseller lists. It entered the Children's Paperpack Books category on the June 23, 2012 list, with 1.5 million copies in print in November 2012. As of May 11, 2014 it appeared on The New York Times Top 10 list for 71 non-consecutive weeks, and was in the top 15 on the September 14 list. The novel has been published in 16 countries in 13 languages.
After the novel Chbosky said he received film offers, refusing them because he "owed the fans a movie that was worthy of their love for the book." In 2010 Mr. Mudd began developing a film version, and the author was signed to write and direct the film by producers John Malkovich, Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith. The film, shot in the Pittsburgh area from May 9 to June 29, 2011, starred Logan Lerman as Charlie, Nina Dobrev as Charlie's sister Candace, Ezra Miller as Patrick and Emma Watson as Sam. It premiered on September 8, 2012 at the Toronto Film Festival, and was released theatrically in the United States by Summit Entertainment on September 21. According to Metacritic it has received "generally favorable reviews", with an average of 67 out of 100 based on 36 reviews. Rotten Tomatoes reported an 85-percent approval rate, based on 151 reviews. The film was a commercial success, grossing over $33 million worldwide from a $13 million production budget.
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