Charlie is an introvert, starting his first year of high school. He has no friends to speak of, his legendary brother has moved on to Penn State on aCharlie is an introvert, starting his first year of high school. He has no friends to speak of, his legendary brother has moved on to Penn State on a football scholarship, and his senior sister wants nothing to do with him once they enter the school's halls. He is alone, and alone is a bad place to be, when you over think as Charlie does. Encouraged to participate in life, rather than watching it from the sidelines, by a teacher who sees the genius lurking in Charlie's subconscious, Charlie sets out to understand himself by blooming into himself in the presence of others, rather than curling into it alone. The story he tells, to a stranger in the form of letters, gives us a glimpse into a year of his life, the very one that may be his golden year.
To put it simply, I liked the novel. I did, really. But as I looked into Charlie's life, there were many experiences I saw that, having faced most if not all the same ones in my own adolescence, caused me to forcefully remind myself that we must all develop in our own way.
While I don't have a lot of problems with how the story unfolds, I did struggle with how it's told. The letter format didn't bother me, but Charlie's voice did, as it seemed to contradict what we are supposed to believe Charlie is. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, his thoughts bounce without rhyme or reason. He cannot hold onto one subject for long. His sentences are choppy and unfurl in a thousand different directions. Having been an introvert placed in an advanced English class my freshman year, in the best public school my state had to offer at the time, I feel as though Charlie and I were on totally different wavelengths, when I knew I should have been the kind of person that connected to him best. I recalled the papers I wrote, even personal letters, in my freshman year, and even dug up a few, only to find Charlie's voice coming up short when compared to mine (even though I wasn't anywhere near the top of my classes), as if the author was unaware of how an advanced placement student was actually expected to write, or how a real introvert cycled through their thoughts. I don't know if Chbosky did this intentionally to develop the character later on and show how Charlie progressed through the year, or if he just eventually got comfortable with writing Charlie as he unfolded more and more, but at some point the language used did smooth out, relax and begin to sound real and human. So while I did get over it, the initial bumpy start of the text threw me for a loop, and almost made me put the novel down.
My sister insisted I keep reading though, and I'm glad I did. I came to enjoy Charlie's whimsical thoughts, and felt sorry for him when his heart ached. But I still had trouble connecting with him, though I enjoyed him. I sympathized with him, but I didn't empathize well. I lived through many of the same events as Charlie, from being accidentally stoned in the most good-natured way you can be drugged, to facing life after a friend's suicide and living with the secret of having been molested by someone I cared deeply for. His existence very nearly mirrored mine, but by the end of the novel, I felt as if I had walked on an alien planet. His reactions to these events range from too mature to not nearly mature enough. And while I can understand the build up to a total mental break, I don't know that his way of handling things would have really built up into that kind of fall. In some instances, it seems like we're justifying his fall from grace with other instances of similar things happening to him in his life prior to the events of the book, rather than using the novel's story to actually push him into that breaking point.
Charlie's reaction to things just isn't consistent in an actual person. One moment, he is a boy who needs coddled and praised, and the very next he is a capable young man, standing up for the people he loves and the things he believes in. And then, just as suddenly, he is coddled again. It is as if, as he progresses in life, he regresses mentally. Instead of participation opening him up to his inner strength, it is making him vulnerable.
But his vulnerability is written beautifully. His actual breaks, and his understanding of anxiety and what it makes a person think and feel are incredible instances in the novel, filled with a subtle sort of insight that doesn't beat you over the head. It is those lovely instances, and Charlie's reflection on love, and Sam's incredible maturity when she speaks to Charlie about these instances that kept me reading. These moments are focused and deeply emotional, when Charlie's not suffering from a case of "scatterbrained storytelling".
So again, to put it simply, did I like the book? Yes, but I don't think it stands up to the beautiful coming of age story that the world of young adult readers puts it up to be. It relies too much on us believing what we're told about Charlie, rather than what we see in him, and the topics covered are so wide and varied that they cannot possibly be explored in all their depth in this short novel. So while I like the characters, and I will probably one day return to this novel for a light read, I will not be one of the masses on tumblr quoting it's famous line: "We accept the love we think we deserve." Nor will I hail it as an understanding of the adolescent introvert's condition. Having lived much the same life as Charlie, I feel his character is a romantic notion of what the kind of person I was should be, rather than what they are. And romance is fine, so long as you remember that it is not how the world really works....more