I have ended up giving this book four stars, even though it has tremendous problems. I actually watched the movie before reading the book and the movie, because it is written and directed by the author clears up some of the ambiguities (in a good way) of the book. The book is very much a YA book. I had known it was about teenagers, but it is placed very much in the YA camp. It is a sort of Judy Blume novel on steroids.
By far the biggest problem is the main character, Charlie's voice. The book is written in an overly simple manner. Charlie is meant to be something of a boy genius, but you certainly would not know that from the way he writes. The book is written in epistolary form, for no real reason. The main character is incredibly naive, past the point of believability. For instance, he has it explained to him how to masturbate when he is almost 16. The main character is deeply troubled, but in a way that is badly handled at times. But there is this huge disconnect, between the voice in the novel and the character that is drawn and this is just bad writing. Also, the prose is bad. A lot of people wonder if the book is about a main character with aspergers but it is actually about a traumatized main character and the tendency for this to be misidentified by the reader is at least in part the fault of the author.
The book is also subject to spitting out Polonius like words of wisdom from time to time and while this is part of its appeal to real teens, they are one of the worst things about the book.
Having said that the novel has some very serious strengths and cannot be understood, without its final closing pages where the big reveal happens. The novel is first and foremost a novel about the after effects of abuse. The main character had been sexually abused, by his aunt Helen as a young child. The book is right on the money about how sexually abused children, or any abused person behaves. It is not good about what their internal monologue is, but it is very good about the feelings and behaviors involved.
The key to unlocking the book is that it is really a story of the after affects of abuse. Throughout the book Charlie is drawn to people with very serious problems for high-school and who are to a greater or lesser degree self-destructing. That makes the book a kind of encyclopedia of serious teenage problems with abuse of all kinds, rape, suicide, mental health issues and homophobia. The book is very good about what it sees as the solution to this, which in addition to medical treatment, is forming a close group of friends who try to navigate their emotional damage and who in some sense are outsiders torn between revolt and conformity. That is very well handled.
Where the book is at its best, is about the way abused people behave. Different fall-outs are shown, but Charlie's is a typical abuse victim pattern which is seldom represented in popular culture. A deeply ambiguous relationship and set of feelings towards his aunt is one. A tendency to hate the people who were oblivious to the abuse or caused the abuser to grow up abusive is another. An inability to process negative experiences or feelings of any kind is another. Charlie has difficulty processing events and has a hard time processing a rape that literally takes place in front of him. How this sort of thing is communicated by the author is not well done, but he is right on the money about the behaviour.
These examples could be multiplied endlessly. Charlie lives to makes other people happy, but is incapable of identifying his own feelings and needs. This is made very explicit in the end of the book. He constantly subjects himself to bad experiences for the sake of others without even being able to process them. It is this cutting off from reality that gives people the impression of Aspergers, and again I think that is the fault of the writer that the book can be read that way. However, the mindless self-sacrifice and desire to please that leads him to accommodate such things as letting a gay main character repeatedly kiss him, just to have the other character happy is an excellent part of the book. The wild emotional mood swings and explosive violent anger of Charlie all make an appearance in the book, but there is too much ignored crying.
Because Charlie is drawn to damaged people, who he tries to help, the other characters have a lot of damaging experiences and the way they react to them is very well done as well. Finally the end of the book, when Charlie's ways of handling abuse hit a wall and crumble and he becomes basically catatonic is well done as well.
Finally, the main character is sexually abused by his aunt. It is admirable that the book features some sort of female on male abuse, because our society is still in denial that this ever happens. (I even read one review here, where the reviewer was mad at Chbosky for besmirching the name of a dead fictional character). Anything, that raises the profile that abuse is an equal opportunity employer is good.
A lot of people characterize this book as a sweet coming of age story about teenagers. That isn't really true. It is about emotionally damaged teenagers coping more or less well with that damage and at turns healing or acquiring further damage. However there is this veneer of charming coming of age story spread over top. They don't work together and it is the stuff below the surface that works best.
If we look at the book as a whole, it is amazingly good at about how emotionally damaged people in general and teenagers in particular behave and clearly represents a lot of the counter-intuitive behaviour and emotional states. The plotting is good. The characters behave in believable ways across the board.
However, the writing style is bad. It never rang true to me. Charlie is a literary fellow and would be attempting to be more literary in a teenager way. He is too naive and Chbosky is clearly trying to make Charlie as likable and unoffensive as possible and goes too far. I found the epistolary form to be annoying and pointless.
However, because Chbosky is so correct about the way people behave there is a lot to admire and I found the whole thing affecting. The end twist of abuse, rather than feeling tacked on, glues the whole work together and makes it not an incoherent coming of age story, but a coherent survivor story. It is so good and so clever at that, you have to admire it. It is simply right and never wrong about behaviour and you have to admire it for that as well.
For me, its hyper-realism about people made the book affecting. Far too affecting in fact to give it three stars, despite its serious flaws. It feels totally real. It feels real to the point, that it feels like much of it is thinly disguised autobiography, although perhaps it isn't.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a poorly written near masterpiece. Fantastic story and characters. Deeply realized behaviour with poor execution in the nitty-gritty of sentences.