Not for the first time, I find myself reading a book about ten years too late and being utterly incapable of connecting with it on any level. Someone probably should have made me read this when I was in high school, and I most likely would have reviewed it more favorably – then again, I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was fifteen and found Holden Caulfield to be utterly insufferable, so it’s entirely possible that I just do not care about the struggle of the middle-class teenage white boy.
Reading this as an adult, all the issues hidden in the text were glaringly obvious. I kept waiting for the English teacher to turn out to be a total creep, but instead he just keeps telling Charlie how smart he is and being the perfect high school teacher that no one actually had, ever (apparently he’s played by Paul Rudd in the movie version, which should have been a tip-off that his character was going to be perfect in every way). And why are these high school kids hanging out with a guy who’s already graduated? I can’t decide what’s sadder – that a bunch of teenagers don’t realize how pathetic their older friend is, or that the guy seems to think that these teenagers (for whom he provides drugs and alcohol and a safe place to consume them) are really his friends.
Also, the writing. Stephen Chbosky is either the worst writer in the world, or he’s a genius who is able to perfectly capture the shitty, self-absorbed voice of the average fifteen-year-old. Considering how gifted and smart Charlie is, I would have expected his writing to be a little better, but as it is, the book was like reading my old high school diaries, and I’m still suffering from secondhand embarrassment. Thank God I deleted my Livejournal back in college.
I tried very hard to sympathize with Charlie. I am aware that he has been through hell and he Has Issues, but for Christ’s sake could he stop bursting into tears every five pages? Throughout the book, every time Charlie would start crying because, I don’t know, the wind hit him at the wrong angle, I would stare at the pages and think, “If you were a female character, readers would hate you. They would mock you endlessly and say you were pathetic. If you were written as a girl, no one would have any sympathy for you at all.” And that made me sad.
There were brief flashes in this book, little pieces of writing, where even as a cynical twenty-five-year-old I was able to read them and understand why teenagers connect so hard with this book. Like when Charlie writes:
“I wish that God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what’s wrong with me. Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense. To make this all go away. And disappear. I know that’s wrong because it’s my responsibility, and I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.”
(quick note to all the teenagers reading this review: that feeling that Charlie is describing doesn’t go away when you leave high school. Have fun!)
And the book’s subtle lesson struck me deeply: loving your friends and supporting them is important, but not at the expense of your own happiness. But for the most part, I read this book and could only think one thing: thank CHRIST I’m not fifteen anymore.
Verdict: two out of five stars