Before I actually sat down to read this book, I’d never understood what this quote meant. But now I get it, or at least I hope I do. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is more than just the book that used to be cool and is just mainstream ‘hipster’ now. It’s more than teenage angst, more than coming-of-age.
It’s a book about the freedom of being able to grow up. (Note: this review contains no spoilers.)
How’s growing up liberating? What gives?
Just picture for a moment: the new adult responsibilities, new environments, heavy-handed decisions about the future that can no longer be made on whim. It sounds heavy because it is. How can the idea of growing up to face the ‘adult world’ offer excitement and freedom to nervous kids?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes growing up in stride. Charlie, the titular wallflower, has never really been noticed. He’s gone through a lot of emotionally damaging, unhealthy experiences. He’s withdrawn and quiet. Sensitive and thoughtful and truly a good person at heart. Charlie makes friends – Sam and Patrick, who become the two people most important to him. He finds himself part of a group. He engages with Bill, his teacher. He interacts with his family. And he writes everything down in the form of letters to an anonymous reader.
I think it’s hard to sum the book up in all its parts. There’s criticism that it’s so all-over-the-place, never really settling on one issue long enough and instead rapidly moving to the next. It does do that – the novel attempts to encompass the diverse kaleidoscope of the myth we call ‘teenhood’. Recreational drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex, romance, personal demons, abuse, sexuality, identity, friendship, and dealing with the uncertain future.
Truth to be told, it hardly detracted from how much I enjoyed it. Chbosky’s style is so personal, so private and honest, that Charlie’s letters felt more than just simple fiction. They had a lot of heart. I felt the love he feels for those important to him. I felt his distress when he started slipping into his ‘bad place’ again. Chbosky brings across so much intense feeling in so few pages, it moved me more times than I can remember.
While messy, I think the novel never really chooses one aspect of teenhood to focus on because it is fundamentally not about any of those things. It’s not just about identity VS romantic pursuits, or any other interchangeable element. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about teenhood as a whole.
The novel portrays Charlie’s group of friends as vibrant and full of different personality types. Everyone felt so alive, so diverse. I loved how the characters bounced off each other with ease. They helped each other grow along the way, through each other’s ups and downs. I grew increasingly invested in everyone’s happiness through Charlie’s empathy for his friends. The Sam-Charlie-Patrick best friend triangle relationship is one of the most stunning displays I have ever seen in a YA book in awhile. Everything was just honest, loving, and each character had his/her good and bad days. I love the three of them so much.
The journey taken by members of the group into their college years is the most important thing here. The end result of growing up is one thing. How you get there is what’s worth watching. That’s what I think the novel tries to emphasize. To grow up surrounded by those you love is a wonderful thing, be they family or friend. May you ride out the times ahead together.
Riding down a tunnel with Sam and Patrick, feeling the wind against his face and the lights zoom by, waiting for the inevitable burst when they fly out into the night, lit by the dazzling city, blasting an old rock song – it is in this moment that Charlie says they felt infinite. And I think I get it now.
He’s saying that stuff because he feels as if anything is possible for him and his friends. He loves them, he loves this experience, he loves this moment even if he recognizes that perhaps they might all become a memory someday. But it’s not the future that matters. It’s the now – the moment itself. And here, surrounded by love, feeling the exhilarating rush, he feels infinite because he recognizes his own potential.
That’s the wonderful thing about growing up – when you do, one step at a time, you are choosing your own path, making your own decisions. You may not feel like it all the time, but when you do, you believe that anything can be possible. Personally, it feels like having a hopeful dream that you can never stop chasing after, like how I want to write and keep writing for others to read.
Growing up is a freedom allowed to teenagers, because you’ve still got the whole world in your hands. I think that’s what Charlie’s story is trying to tell us.