Monday, April 01, 2002

Just What are the Perks of Being a Wallflower?

I took on the task of reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky because I'd seen it on a number of teen favorite lists. So, here it is in a nutshell: Charlie, who has more than your average teen problems (he sees a psychiatrist instead of a dermatologist), tells his story through letters to an unnamed person. He is considered a wallflower in the sense of being a passive observer of life instead of the more traditional meaning of being on the outside of real social activities. As far as real social activities are concerned, Charlie really gets around. He falls in with a group of older students (seniors in high school--Charlie is just old enough to get his license) who are kind to him though they introduce him to a number of what are usually considered adult interests. Several times in the course of the story, Charlie asks "What's wrong with me?" I wondered what was wrong with him, too. At the end of the book, I found out.

Now, I know this is an old coot reaction, but all I could think while I read the last third of this book was, "Where are these kids' parents?" Not a single teenager in this story had parents who ever noticed that their kids had brought friends home while the house was empty or asked where they were going and if an adult would be there or objected because their kids were spending so much time in the apartments of college age kids who lived alone? Over the course of an entire school year no parents noticed anything, not even that their brandy was disappearing faster than it should have been? Charlie has a history of mental illness and ends up seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication. He also has caring parents. They had a child that fragile and never noticed that he'd started drinking and doing drugs? They never even smelled cigarettes on him and realized he was smoking?

The lack of parental interest was convenient for the story line but not very realistic. It gets back (see March 18th entry) to how to get parents out of the way so young characters can, in this case, do everything. In Wallflower the parents aren't eliminated in a logical way. The parent issue just isn't addressed at all. Their absence leaves a gaping hole in the story.

Now, after saying that I found the book unbelievable, it's only fair to add that teens really like this book. There are on-line fan sites and discussion groups in which teenagers talk about reading Wallflower in seven hours and reading it several times. I suspect that what they are attracted to is not the activity engaged in but...the lack of adults. Though Chbosky has created a world that is unrealistic and doesn't deal with one of teenagers' greatest problems--their parents--it's a world in which adolescents are autonomous in a way that they can only dream about in real life. It's a fantasy world for kids who are too old for Harry Potter.

Read a transcript of an online chat with Stephen Chbosky at LiveWorld, Inc.

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