The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” 

At 232 pages, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is not a mammoth masterpiece. It is, however, a very clever one. I read it in a few hours on a lazy Sunday morning, absolutely captivated by the story – even though I’d already seen the movie. 

An epistolary novel (a book written in letters), it is told through the eyes of Charlie, a slightly awkward teenager, adjusting to high school life. There is all the usual teen stuff – first love, proms, exams. But the real brilliance of the story lies in its subtlety. Through Charlie, author Stephen Chbosky provides us with a running commentary on the daily life of a middle class American family living in suburbia in the early 90s. There are no dragons or wizards: just music records, bookstores and a lot of pot.

Charlie is incredibly philosophical. Often his letters, addressed ‘Dear Friend’ to an anonymous recipient, will include detailed play-by-plays of family parties or school lunches. But most of the time, Charlie – or Chbosky – is commenting on (read: challenging) social norms and musing on how silly some conventions seem. It’s one of those books that helps you put life in perspective and forces you to look at situations in a different light.

To illustrate my example, here is a quote from one of my favourite passages. Charlie is in a takeout restaurant (presumably McDonalds):

“I saw other people there. Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who look tired. Fathers in nice coats who looked even more tired. Kids working behind counters of the food places who looked like they hadn’t had the will to live for hours. The machines kept opening and closing. The people kept giving money and getting their change. And it all felt very unsettling to me.”

This short paragraph contains so much meaning. You can see why Chbosky didn’t need to write a 600 page novel – his 232 pages are more than enough. He gives you a tantalising glimpse into the lives of so many different characters – and then he moves on. Just in that paragraph, you have snippets of other people’s stories. And you can probably relate to them all on some level.

My thoughts

I found it incredibly refreshing to read a book that communicated powerful messages in such a ‘readable’ fashion. As in, in a clear and unpretentious way. And I don’t think it was by accident. Charlie received advice from his advanced English teacher about his writing, as follows:

“[Bill] said that I should use the vocabulary that I learn in class like ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’. I would use them here, but I really don’t think they are appropriate in this format. To tell you the truth, I don’t know where they are appropriate to use. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know them. You should absolutely. But I have just never heard anyone use the words ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’ ever in my life. That includes teachers. So what’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably? I just don’t understand that.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t hide behind any fancy words or academic references. It is the sort of book you can read in a couple of hours on a lazy Sunday morning, but finish the last page feeling as though you have soaked up a whole semester’s worth of philosophy class. And if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it contains the essential hallmark of a great novel: a shocking twist.

Although that doesn’t mean it embodies perfection. One passage in particular in The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out to me. Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, gave him a new book to read. And this is what he said:

“Be sceptical about this one. It’s a great book. But try to be a filter, not a sponge.”

I read that sentence a few times, and it dawned on me that lately, I have been a sponge. Just read my latest review of ‘Little Princes‘ and you’ll see what I mean. I’m positively gushing about this book, praising it to high heaven – so much so that I probably didn’t apply a filter at all when reading it. My critical eye was blinded. Instead I had just soaked it all up and bathed in what I perceived to be its brilliance.

But I need to be a filter. The written word is powerful and I can be easily inspired. All it takes is one novel about orphanages in Nepal and I’m ready to pack my bags and sign up as a volunteer. Now, in hindsight, I see that Little Princes may have teetered on the ever-blurry border of fact and fiction. How much of it was true and how much of it was carefully constructed publicity? The author, after all, has a not-for-profit to run. This book wasn’t just written to provide an insight into Nepalise life – there is always an agenda. And this doesn’t make it bad, but it is simply worth remembering. With how much I read, I need to be a filter, or I will struggle to stay sane under the weight of so many different ideas.

And that, when I think about it, is probably why Charlie needed to be a filter too. He suffered from severe panic attacks and was highly sensitive to the world around him – so much so it almost killed him. But life will not be enriching if you try to soak it all up like a sponge. Eventually you are going to run out of room and become laden and heavy, overburdened with information, unable to move forward. But being a filter, you can take what you need out of life and leave the rest. It isn’t worth holding onto what doesn’t serve you.

Bookmarked Quotes

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

“Enjoy it. Because it’s happening.”

“He’s a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” 

The Girl Below by Bianca Zander

The Girl Below by Bianca Zander

I read The Girl Below by Bianca Zander in a weekend. Zander’s fast-paced debut novel is a page turner and kept me hooked right up until the very end. However it’s not until I finished the book that the true significance of Zander’s words began to sink in. I love that in a story – the way it lingers with you long after you have finished the last lines.

The Girl Below is told through the eyes of Suki Piper, a confused and depressed young woman who is trying to make sense of her past. Suki grew up in London but fled to New Zealand at age 18, after her mother passed away from cancer. The story commences ten years later, when she moves back to London to start over.  She turns up in the big city alone, and spends months sleeping on a former colleague’s couch (much to the disgruntlement of other flatmates), before her life becomes intertwined with old family friends: an elderly neighbour from her childhood called Peggy, Peggy’s daughter Pippa and Pippa’s adolescent son Caleb.

Many chapters are flashbacks to Suki’s childhood, when she was living with her mother and father in the basement flat of a Notting Hill apartment building. In particular, Suki keeps going back to the night her parents had a roaring party, and something happened in the old World War Two bunker in the backyard. It is the mystery of the bunker that kept me turning the pages, and drove me to finish it within a weekend. Within the first few chapters its evident that something terrible happened down there, but Zander skilfully keeps us guessing as to what.

Suki is a complex character, and in many ways she is difficult to like. She’s the sort of person that it would be difficult to be friends with. Incredibly self-absorbed, Suki seems to be sleepwalking through her life.  She suffers from regular anxiety attacks and insomnia, and appears quite unable to function properly. She also makes poor decisions and struggles to maintain genuine friendships. As for relationships, she has a string of toxic lovers to her name and has sworn off romance for good. She is quite literally alone in the world. Yet despite all her flaws, you will find yourself rooting for Suki, and hoping that she finds her way.

For me, above everything, The Girl Below is a story about mental illness. A story about a young woman suffering from severe depression and anxiety, to the point in which it has overtaken her life and made it near impossible for her to function like a “normal” person. It is easy to judge Suki, and to want to “shake her out of her stupor”, but you soon realise that she’s not like this by choice. And that nobody ever is.

The Girl Below is also a book about memory, and how unreliable it can be. When Suki recalls her childhood, this can seem to pass into the sphere of the supernatural. Towards the end, the story becomes patchy in places, and hard to believe. But I think that Zander was trying to emphasise that memory is imperfect. If you read the book with this in mind, it may help you understand some of the “weirdness” that occurs.

I’d highly recommend this book because it explores mental illness in an honest and refreshing way. I don’t think enough books go down this path, but I believe it’s an important path to take. While some of Suki’s personality traits may seem farfetched or unrealistic, I think Suki is actually a better representation of what “normal” is in today’s anxiety-ridden world than the idealistic characters of “happily ever after” novels.

Whether you want to or not, you’ll probably end up identifying with her on some level.