This is a teen novel whose young hero, Charlie, is a strange lad who cries a lot and has had psychiatric problems in the past. It is an epistolary novel in the sense that it is all done in letters that Charlie writes to an unnamed friend.
Charlie should be in senior year but has been kept down a year. He has no real friends. Even his sister (who he sees having sex with her boyfriend) thinks he is a pervert (and his brother leaves home at the start of the novel to go to college where he plays football). Charlie gradually makes friends, particularly Patrick who kisses Brad but Brad doesn't want anyone to know he is gay so Patrick has to keep the relationship secret, and Patrick's sister Sam, on whom Charlie has an enormous crush, and Bob who sells Charlie weed, and Mary Elizabeth who is Charlie's first date. And Charlie does all the normal things that teenage boys do, partying, smoking weed, drinking beer, fooling around, reading book after book after book recommended by his English teacher, dating, dancing, listening to music, learning to drive, accompanying Patrick to a park so that Patrick can have anonymous gay sex with strangers, accompanying his sister to the abortion clinic, acting in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But all the time this strange narrator has a different take on life. He is so sensitive and so caring that in the end Sam says: "It's great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn't need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that?" In short, Charlie is a wallflower.
It starts with the ominous news that Michael, one of Charlie's friends, is dead. "Dave with the awkward glasses told us that Michael killed himself." The counsellors "were afraid that some of us would try to kill ourselves or something because they looked very tense and one of them kept touching his beard." One of the delights about the book is that it is full of little observations like Dave-with-the-awkward-glasses and kept-touching-his-beard. I loved them! One boy, for example "has very nice brown hair, and he wears it long with a ponytail. I think he will regret this when he looks back on his life." Brilliant.
Unlike so many US novels which seem to have perfect families, Charlie's seems real. They have Thanksgiving at his grandfather's who is very fat and makes his wife cry and lock herself in the bathroom so that Charlie's cousins have "to go to the bathroom outside in the bushes" which makes him feel sad for his girl cousins who can't. Charlie can sense that his father doesn't like granddad and it appears that granddad his his daughters, Charlie's mother and Aunt Helen. Aunt Helen is a continual presence for Charlie despite or because of the fact that she was killed in a car accident on Christmas Eve (Charlie's birthday) when she was buying Charlie two presents.
Charlie's sister is on the edges of the action, having her own problems with boys (and getting pregnant). "My sister was the one who told me where babies come from. My sister was the one who laughed when I immediately asked her where babies go to."
Soon Charlie himself is fooling around with Mary Elizabeth although he doesn't really like her (he is really just being polite, trying to be a good friend although he doesn't really understand that he needs to be honest to do that): "All I could do was lie there and think about ... how much my arm was beginning to hurt. Thank God we heard the automatic garage door opening when we did."
There is a lovely moment when Charlie goes to the mall and, wallflower like, observes the people there. "Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who looked tired. Fathers in nice coats who looked even more tired. Kids working behind the 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 their money and getting their change." A little kid gets lost in the mall. "Anyway, this older kid, who was really tough-looking with a leather jacket and long hair and everything, went up to the little boy and asked him what his name was." For a moment you worry about stranger danger but, in a nice if predictable twist, the tough kid is a good Samaritan who takes the little kid to the information desk where he is reunited with a grateful and tearful mum "She thanked the older kid who had helped, and all the older kid said was. 'Next time just watch him a little fucking better'." Now that's a great twist!
In the end, the theme of the book can be summarised by a conversation between Sam and Charlie:
"'Charlie, you're so stupid sometimes. Do you know that?'
'Yeah. I really do. Know that. Honest.'"
In some ways this is a bit like Adrian Mole growing up in America. It is a delightful book with some brilliant moments but a feeling of imminent doom (following Michael's suicide) throughout the book. Charlie is, after all, seriously weird. Is he going to come through the ordeals of growing up unscathed? At the almost exact half way point he reads to the assembled throng a poem about a straight A student slashing his wrists, listens to the sounds of Sam, the girl he adores, and her boyfriend Craig having sex and thinks, "for the first time in my life I understood the end of that poem. And I never wanted to. You have to believe me." And that is the end of part 2 and you think (not for the first or the last time, 'Oh shit').
August 2016, 231 pages
Other great teen novels reviewed in this blog are:
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Paper Towns by John Green
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57