“It was pretty straightforward, I thought, and the great part is that I took what the author wrote about and put it in terms of my own life. Maybe that’s what being a filter means.” (169)
Started: January 4th | Finished: January 7th
I first read this in eighth grade. I remember this because during homeroom, a classmate saw me sitting alone and reading instead of talking with anyone and asked me if I was lonely. I replied no, because why would I be?
This irony—me reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a book about being an outcast, while also being viewed as an outcast—is something that I didn’t realize until I watched the movie for the first time a month ago, as a college sophomore. I put off watching it for years because I didn’t want the movie to ruin the book, and during its release, it was overhyped and overquoted. (To this day, I can’t really take “and in that moment, I swear we were infinite” seriously, even though it’s such a beautiful quote, especially when put in context of the book:
“After the song finished, I said something.
‘I feel infinite.’
And Sam and Patrick looked at me like I said the greatest thing they ever heard. Because the song was that great and because we really paid attention to it. Five minutes of a lifetime were truly spent, and we felt young in a good way.” (33)
This is the first mention of the idea of being “infinite” and it’s just such a beautiful concept to me, of just being there and being in the moment and being aware that you’re alive. A moment that is unmuddled with the ideas of mortality and endings. A happy, irreplaceable feeling.)
On a whim, I decided to finally watch the movie. And I cried. A lot. And it lead to this reread.
When I first read Perks in middle school, I don’t think I grasped many of the concepts that were in the book. I mean, I was this innocent middle schooler, with no experience of high school or drug use or love or depression or anxiety. So it didn’t influence me as much as it did when I watched the movie and reread it as who I am now, a college student who is still very much a wallflower, because being a wallflower is a concept that I did grasp and hold onto, even when I was a middle schooler.
“You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” (37)
The narrator, Charlie, is a high school freshman, who doesn’t have many friends and is very much an outsider. And not in the clichéd way, not the whole “I’m-too-cool-for-everyone-in-high-school-so-I-choose-to-not-involve-myself” way. Charlie is perceptive. He feels things so strongly and passionately and desperately wants to fit in and belong. And he eventually does, finding friendship in Sam and Patrick and their little friend group of other graduating seniors. They expose him to new music and different stories and unique experiences. The book basically just follows Charlie’s navigation through his first year of high school, while slowly unraveling his past and the experiences that make him the way he is today.
One of the reasons why I enjoyed the book so much is because I resonated with it. Looking back at my own experience in high school, and even my continuing experiences in college, I identify with Charlie in many ways. In his hyperaware noticing of the things around him, whether it’s the environment or the people. In his want and need to belong, which I don’t feel quite as strongly as he does, but there’s always that background feeling of being left out. In his love for books.
With the format that the novel is written in, a series of letters to an anonymous stranger, it allows the reader to really immerse themselves in Charlie’s thoughts and feelings. The writing is simple, but somewhat choppy and impersonal, and it describes his feelings often without using emotional adjectives. It would say that Charlie is feeling strange because of what someone does, but that’s the end of that description. It doesn’t delve deep into the emotional side, even though it’s describing personal and emotional events. I didn’t mind this writing much because it helps with understanding who Charlie is and how his mind works, making me think about what is making him feeling this way. And it also makes it easier to identify with him (see: the first quote I mentioned in the beginning).
The book, as well as exploring classic teen elements, also explores darker themes, of PTSD and sexual assault and suicide. Some of these elements are introduced from the get-go, while others are just hinted at. With new experiences, comes repressed realizations that become clearer, and these revelations are what progress the story along.
As Charlie finds company in his friends and the experiences that they bring, he also learns to come to terms with his past. He has a strong connection to his Aunt Helen, who passed away when he was little, and throughout the book, he constantly mentions how much he misses her and how he wishes he can talk to her. He eventually realizes the reason for this strong connection he has to her. This realization comes at the end and sets up one of the major takeaways of the book:
“I’m not the way I am because of what I dreamt and remembered about my aunt Helen … 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.” (211)
This is very much a coming-of-age book, with the ability to track Charlie’s growth and look into the inner workings of his mind. He ends his first year with straight A’s, but is still struggling with himself and his feeling of loneliness. I thought this was so important to include, because it shows how in high school, our problems aren’t often found in our academics, but rather in everything else, our home lives and social lives and personal lives. Charlie goes through so much in that first year, which we know about because of these letters, but no one else would be able to tell because he’s doing fine academically.
I’m glad I read this in two very different times of my life: once in middle school and once in college. As a middle schooler, I didn’t understand much of the book, but somehow, the book still allowed me to look into myself and help me figure out who I am. As a college student, it let me look back on my experiences and draw lessons and insights from them and to continue to do so, as my college experience continues.
Perks is an unbelievably important book to me. I have a hard time labeling books as my favorites, but this is definitely one of them.
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