Making the transition from young adult to actual adult is tough, and there are only so many records, books, and movies to help struggling teens along the way. Nothing is all that universal, either. One person might like Catcher In The Rye, while another might find it misogynistic and pointless. A shy girl could find her life mirrored in Mean Girls, whereas to the rest of the world, it’s just a Tina Fey/Lindsay Lohan comedy. For many young people, though, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower speaks to the growing-up experience not only smartly but also with a true-to-teendom emotional flair.
Published in February 1999 by MTV Books, Perks tells the story of Charlie, a smart but spacey Pittsburgh 16-year-old who’s just starting high school. He doesn’t have any friends—hence the wallflowering—but then he meets Patrick and Sam, a pair of step-sibling seniors who are happy to take him into their clique, quirks and all. Through a series of letters Charlie writes to an unnamed friend he’s never met, readers go on a journey through his freshman year, watching as he falls in love, reads a ton of “important” books, and gets a girlfriend—albeit, not the same girl with whom he’s in love. The book also delves headfirst into Charlie’s personal issues, like his aunt’s death, his sister’s pregnancy, and his precarious mental state, which we learn in the epilogue is due to his suppression of memories about molestation by his aforementioned aunt as a child.
In the 13 years since the book came out, hordes of young-adult readers have lapped up Perks and passed it on to friends (In 2007 The New York Times noted that it had sold 700,000 copies and “is passed from adolescent to adolescent like a hot potato, due in part to its ‘slender’ nature.”) This week, a Perks Of Being A Wallflower movie hits theaters, starring Emma Watson and produced by Summit Entertainment, the same company that makes the Twilight movies. Clearly, this book stood the test of time, a feat considering the flighty, trend-obsessed teen-book market.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower certainly owes some of its appeal with teens to the fact that it’s written with teens specifically in mind. Whereas Twilight or The Hunger Games can be read and conceivably appreciated by adults for their soapy dramatics, Perks suffers from an overabundance of pure, raw angst. That’s fitting for a book about a raw, angsty kid, but reading Perks 13 years after it first came out and I first read it, the 31-year-old me was not nearly as sympathetic to Charlie’s plight as 18-year-old me reading alone in my dorm room. Is that because I grew up? Or is it because, ravaged by real life and capitalism, I’ve become dead inside like almost all the adults in Perks? I’m not sure.
That’s not to say that reading Perks again, I didn’t feel at least a little infinite, to quote one of the book’s signature—and more cringe-worthy—lines. While I didn’t rush out and write letters to strangers or start holding my friends’ hands over French fries, cigarettes, and coffee at Big Boy, but re-reading the book did, even years later, remind me of what it was like to be 18 again, meeting my first college friends, including a guy who was and is a little like Charlie—albeit with fewer crippling emotional problems. After reading a few chapters on the bus, I stepped off into the city and found that the sun felt a little brighter on my ancient adult hands. If I was reading at home and was interrupted, I sulked around, all moody and raw until I realized that I was being a dick to the people around me.
Therein lies one of the issues in reading Perks as an adult: It’s not so much that grown-ups forget how to be young, but more that we just don’t want to be anymore. Teenagers can be self-righteous, over-confident assholes. They can also suffer from crippling self-doubt that stands in direct opposition to everything teenagers are supposed to be, making them impossible balls of angst and acne. While growing up means paying bills, having jobs, and toughening up, it also means learning to know yourself and becoming confident—or at least a little more confident.
While Perks’ Charlie is seemingly precocious and sure of himself to his friends and to strangers, it becomes clear at the end of the book that he’s passive almost to a fault. As Sam tells him right before she leaves for college, “You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.” As an 18-year-old, that’s something Sam’s learned, and something that, as adult readers, we’ve known for years. Charlie doesn’t, and given his position as the book’s only narrator and de facto per-blogger, that makes some of the book’s prose almost unreadable to more world-wizened eyes. While some lines—like Patrick’s musing that the only real difference between his clique and the football team is “what we wear and why we wear it,”—work well, others—like the famous “infinite” line—read as hokey.
That’s okay, though. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower isn’t for adults. If everyone felt infinite or teen-aged forever, our society would fall apart, crushed under the weight of six billion people concerned mostly with themselves. Unlike some more arrested development-friendly YA fare like Harry Potter, Perks speaks to a more specific age range and does it well. While that’s what has made the book a perennial favorite among youth on the cusp of adulthood, it doesn’t really give it the proverbial arms it needs to hold on to those readers as they push on, harden up, and forge their paths into adulthood.