Author: Stephen Chbosky
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: February 1999
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Charlie is a freshman. And while he’s not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years, yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it. Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But Charlie can’t stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what life looks like from the dance floor.
I picked up this book on recommendation from a lot of friends and in anticipation of the upcoming movie adaptation (my interest was piqued by the strong cast). While I enjoyed it, I think I’m past the point in my life when reading it would’ve made me feel infinite.
Perks is a set of letters from the main character Charlie to an unknown ‘friend’ (presumably us, the reader), about his freshman high school experience. The book starts on a fairly sombre note, with Charlie telling us about the suicide of his best friend Michael and the loss of his favourite Aunt Helen much earlier in his life. It goes on to describe the rest of a tumultuous year, focusing mainly on time with two new friends he makes early on, step-siblings Patrick and Sam. It tackles heavy themes, such as homosexuality, abuse, social awkwardness, drugs, teenage sexuality and much more.
I have to admit, at first I thought I missed a trick about who Charlie was writing to, but I ended up liking that the letters were written anonymously. It gave me a sense of voyeurism, the enjoyment of reading about someone else’s adventures and scandals and knowing just enough to keep it interesting. The writing style which the author uses to represent Charlie is appropriate, but doesn’t flow well. Charlie, we find out, likes to ramble on and sometimes I do get lost in his long sentences and mixed thoughts.
I enjoyed the characters, and even knowing as little as you do about them, all are well-defined and had distinct personalities. They made me care about what was happening to them, which in a novel that was just over 200 pages is a tough ask. As far as tackling the issues, I thought the book did very well in presenting and resolving them. What I wasn’t too keen on was Charlie himself, really. Firstly, I couldn’t understand if he was just socially awkward or if he had an illness. Then when you start unravelling his life, you begin to understand that he has had to go through a lot of struggles that normal teenagers wouldn’t normally. However, he does make great friendships, has a great mentor and is loved by his family. He is invited to parties, has a girlfriend, gets straight-As. I found myself not really knowing why I was supposed to feel wholly sorry for him and in the end I couldn’t bring myself to.
Either way, I found the book thought provoking and an altogether easy read. There were some very poignant moments that I really enjoyed, like when Charlie is describing how beautiful Sam looks through a photograph. Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed this book more if I read it in my teens as I feel like some of the shock factor is now lost on me. I will definitely go and see the film, but as for the book, sadly I think I missed the boat.