Credit: Amazon UK

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: a truly life-changing book

By Hailie Pentleton and Rebecca Scott

Rebecca and Hailie jointly review the YA best seller, exploring how literature has the power to make one feel seen, even in the darkest of times.

Hailie Pentleton

My copy of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower rests on the top shelf of my bookcase. It’s never there long enough to gather dust, joining Frankenstein and The Driver’s Seat on my list of yearly rereads. I’m often hesitant to admit my love for Chbosky’s coming of age epistle; it feels cliched for a sensitive twenty-something-year-old to claim it as a favourite, but inevitable all the same.  

The novel takes the form of a series of letters that catalogue titular “wallflower” Charlie’s attempts to acclimatize to high school after losing his best friend to suicide. He writes to us about his first encounters with sex, drugs, dates, and gives some stellar song recommendations for nights spent alone. Chbosky insightfully explores aspects of trauma, sexuality, and mental illness through both Charlie’s character and the complex companions he surrounds himself with. 

Although Chbosky composes a beautiful novel with his lyrical prose style, it can be a painful read. The raw, first-hand accounts of the protagonist’s deteriorating mental health are jarring at times. For my thirteen-year-old self, they were relatable; “it’s strange because sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book”. The Perks of Being a Wallflower made me feel seen when I felt that I could not be heard. Charlie’s letters were a prescription for my teenage loneliness and a well-needed encouragement to hold myself together until the storm passed. 

Ultimately, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a beautiful tribute to what it is to be young, idealistic, and alive. Stories of this nature – and at times the book’s own following – often teeter on the edge of romanticising mental illness. Instead, Chbosky writes unflinchingly, asking the reader to acknowledge both the complexities in other people and in ourselves. Some books give you that well sought after feeling of homecoming, and Charlie’s story is one I reach for regularly; for affirmation, hope, and nostalgia. Yes, “things change, friends leave, and life doesn’t stop for anybody” but there are moments where time moves slower and you recognise that you are present and joyful, and deserving of that joy; this book taught me to be far more mindful of those moments. 

Rebecca Scott

It takes a particular type of book to still fuck you up as much as it did when you first read it. Oftentimes, particularly when it comes to books set in an environment which you’ve long since grown out of – looking at you, YA fiction – it can be easy to detach yourself from the story which meant so much to your 14-year-old self. It’s a jarring experience to look at the traits of the characters you used to put on a pretty pedestal and cringe at the renewed realisation they’re just a glorified self-insert with an exhaustingly “witty” inner monologue. Something something John Green. You get the idea.

However, once in a blue moon, a book comes along and realigns your world so entirely that it stays with you long after you’ve departed your days of devouring fake-deep literature in search of a personality. For me, this book is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I’m entirely aware that it’s a hallmark of the afore-criticised YA fiction genre, but Perks has a way of remaining as raw and relatable now as it did when I first absentmindedly picked up a paperback copy in 2013. The anxieties and tribulations faced by Charlie feel simultaneously deeply personal and universal; indeed, we’ve all at one time or another descended into a spiral of over-thinking and self-hatred. Chbosky is able to poignantly articulate Charlie’s struggles with mental illness and integration into a foreign social environment, and the honesty with which the book handles these issues is still so impactful – even on a 25th read. 

It’s easy to pigeonhole Perks as being just another example of angsty teenage bullshit, and many do. I’ve seen plenty of criticism of the book for its shallow exploration of the plethora of mental health issues that it attempts to include, and one too many comparisons to J. D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye for being similarly over-indulgent and glamorising high-functioning depressed teenage boys. 

Perks is not without its problems – but when a book comes into your life at the precise moment you need it most, you’re not hung up on the novel’s inability to tick every box. Encountering this book at a highly transitionary period of my life and seeing a very real, very flawed protagonist reckoning with mental health issues, friend drama, and familial trauma as I was doing myself, was life-changing. It’s hard to feel understood as a teenager, but Perks did a damn good job of making me feel like someone else out there got it. 

Even now, as I teeter on the edge of turning 21, Perks is the one book that I constantly go back to if I’m ever feeling lost; it anchors me to an understanding that times are a-changin’, and allows me to feel seen in the pages in moments where I can’t even see myself.


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