Book Review: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

November 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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I had been wanting to read Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower since watching his film adaptation — starring Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Kevin (Ezra Miller) — earlier this year, a film (review here) that will most probably land in my top 10 for 2012 when I finally get around to doing that list (and I will, I swear!).

Some might have said I was setting myself up for disappointment by reading the source material after watching the movie version, but I ended up loving the book as well. Despite the fact that my own experiences in no way mirror that of the book’s protagonist, Charlie, the wonderful storytelling by Chbosky — through a series of letters to the reader, no less — conjured up all sorts of nostalgia, warmth and heartbreak. This is a great book for teenagers and young adults, not just because of the themes it tackles or the easy readability, but simply because it is a fantastic read.

Set in the early 1990s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about Charlie, an introverted high school freshman coming off a the suicide of his best friend who remains haunted by the death of his aunt. He is shy, reserved and emotional, and it’s clear from the beginning that there is something about him that’s not quite right. There is an adorable naivete  about him; he’s intelligent but socially awkward, withdrawn but kind. He lives with his parents and a pretty older sister, and his older brother, a football star, has just gone off to college. You can’t help but like him, even though he is a 15/16-year-old who cries a lot and appears to have a more than a few screws loose.

Charlie tells his story to you through a series of letters to an unnamed older “friend”, but the book reads more like diary entries. It’s a clever device because it offers a portal into Charlie’s unusually mature and yet immature mind through his wide-eyed perspective of the world and makes you care about him despite being wary — because you know in the back of your mind that he is damaged, and you can’t quite put young finger on what could have caused it.

His life changes when he meets Patrick and Sam, a pair of step-siblings and seniors who take him under their wing. And so becomes a sweet and melancholic coming-of-age story about friendship, love, teenage angst and mix tapes (yeah!). It sounds corny and in some ways the book can come off that way, but Chbosky skilfully tackles difficult themes such as bullying, high school politics, alienation, drugs, suicide, depression, domestic violence and homosexuality in a way that feels natural and not at all exploitative or manipulative — and with a nostalgic handful of pop culture references (music, film and TV) from the time. Again, I think it goes back to the soft voice of Charlie, who is described by his friends as a “wallflower” (hence the title), someone who fades into the background and observes rather than participates.

Another aspect of the book I really liked was Charlie’s relationship with his English teacher Bill (played by Paul Rudd in the film version), who sees something in his quiet intelligence and love for reading. There are many references to classic books — such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet — which I think will be great for young readers.

Strangely, I think my love for the film has only enhanced my affection for the book and its characters. The book and the film are actually very different as far as adaptations go, and it’s a testament to Chbosky’s control over the material to be able to deliver the same tone and feel across two very different formats with distinct differences in storytelling and execution.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book I would recommend to anyone who likes to read. It’s a short book (not much over 200 pages) and it’s a brisk and easy read packed with a lot of heart , pearls of wisdom and thought-provoking issues, but unlike a lot of other teenage lit it isn’t contrived and doesn’t shove life lessons in your face. I can definitely understand if people don’t like this book (for whatever reason, not just because of its themes), but for me it’s easy to see why it spent more than a year on the NY Times bestseller list and is published in more than 30 languages.

5/5

Book Review: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

August 9, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

gone girl

(Note: See below for a chat with Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya about the book!)

I was looking for a ripper of a read to ease myself back into reading fiction and everywhere I looked on the bestseller lists was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a page-turning psychological thriller about a husband who suddenly finds himself pinned as the prime suspect of his missing wife.

The premise is seemingly typical, stereotypical even, but the execution is anything but.

It’s the kind of novel I can’t really describe in any detail or provide a summary of the background because there are so many delicious twists and turns that should be left to the reader to discover and savour. It’s not a thriller that coasts along in one direction until an “explosive” twist ending — Gone Girl is one unexpected detour after another that repeatedly attempts to derail everything you thought you knew about the story and the characters. I don’t want to say much more except that it’s messed up, in a wickedly good kind of way.

Part of the intrigue comes from the novel’s structure. Part One is told through the point of view of Nick Dunne, the husband who, like many of us, feels detached from the reality he is living in but is pressured into acting the way society expects of him. Nick’s first-person narrative is interspersed with timely diary entries from his beautiful wife, Amy Dunne, who recaps their love story from the beginning to present day. Part Two features the contrasting first-person narratives of Nick and Amy, which become increasingly intense as they go back and forth until the chilling finale.

The implausible but engrossing plot is driven by the strength of the characters Flynn has created, all of whom feel painfully real. Nick and Amy are deeply flawed but believable characters with complex personalities, which we gradually find out, layer by layer, like a peeling onion. A master storyteller, Flynn knows exactly how much of them to give to us and how much to withhold from us until the timing is perfect.

The character of Nick, in particular, really resonated with me. Many of the emotions and thoughts he expresses throughout the novel ring true — quite a remarkable feat considering Flynn is, apparently, a woman in a happy marriage.

Even the supporting characters — from Nick’s twin sister Margo, possible the most sympathetic character in the story, his slick lawyer Tanner Bolt and his ailing father, to even minor characters such as the investigating officers and trampy local groupies — are memorable despite limited screen (page) time.

Thanks in large part to the characters and the twists, Gone Girl is a compulsive page turner pretty much all the way through. The story does somewhat spiral out of control towards the end, stretching the boundaries of believability — which is not surprising because something had to give with all those twists and turns. The narrative loses a bit of steam as a result, but it may have been intentional as it leads to a very interesting — and divisive — conclusion. Personally, I loved it because it shies away from conventional methods, though there are those who say the ending ruined the book for them.

The final word on Gone Girl: a cracking read that took me on a dark and unexpected journey into a world of murder, revenge, betrayal, madness and sexual politics. Written in a confident, honest voice from a skillful writer who treads the line between commercial genre and literary fiction and knows exactly how to manipulate her readers into thinking one way then pulling the rug out from under them.

Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike / Nick and Amy Dunne

PS: Flynn is currently adapting her novel for the film version, which is shaping up to be one of the highly anticipated films of 2014, given it will be produced by Reese Witherspoon, directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in the lead roles. Neil Patrick Harris is reportedly in talks to play a supporting character, and I have a fairly good idea which one.

Conversation with Hubert Widjaya

PJM: So, first impressions of Gone Girl?

HW: Highly entertaining, a great plot if very extreme. But what makes it so engaging is the first person shifts from Amy to Nick, etc. By writing in this way Flynn keeps you guessing as to who will get away with what and who is completely good and evil.

PJM: Were you shocked by some of the twists and turns?

HW: As to the main twist…slightly underwhelmed. Can’t quite put my finger on it.

PJM: Who were your favourite characters and why?

HW: Trying to think…who were yours and why?

PJM: I really connected with Nick, which is strange, considering what a douchebag he is. And of course you can’t hate Margo, the most level headed person in all of this. Plus Tanner was a good show and a great laugh with his typical lawyer antics.

HW: The cops were cool especially Boney she added a light touch which you need in books like this. But I agree with you re Nick. There’s something very believable about him. Big dreams as a real journo who loses his job, then decides to just do something less careery i.e. bar

PJM: I want to talk about the ending too, which divided a lot of readers. Without giving anything away, what did you think of it? A lot of people were looking for a conventional ending where people get their come uppance, but I think the ending Flynn chose works well.

HW: A conventional ending for a non conventional book wouldn’t have worked.

PJM: It’s bleak and filled with dread, and in some ways it works than your well-rounded conclusion or shock tactics.

HW: Was going to say that, the sense of dread, which made me think of Rosemary’s Baby.

PJM: I read an interview with Flynn in which she referred to Rosemary’s Baby as an inspiration. And last but not least, the film. We’ve got to talk about the film!

HW: I’ll say it again: I can so picture Affleck playing the role well…Oscar noms galore, as both leads have to pretend so many conflicting emotions. Who would have thought he’d be up there as one of the best directors currently?

PJM: Yeah, Affleck is perfect for the role. When I read the book I kept picturing his douchey face, haha. He is one of my favourite directors, but least favourite actors…well, maybe that is a bit harsh, but I don’t think he is a great actor, though this could be the role he’s been waiting for.

HW: True. Good Will Hunting…they’ve come along way from them apples.

PJM: What about Pike?

HW: Haven’t seen much of her work, but going on looks, she looks icy hot, ie, good casting.

PJM: I agree. And Neil Patrick Harris could be either great or too distracting. What do you think of Fincher directing?

HW: Good question. While reading I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-style book despite no plot similarities. The dynamics between men and women are shared, so perfect for Fincher. The twist of Seven meets the red herrings of The Game.

PJM: Final word on Gone Girl? And rating out of five?

HW: Fun, fast paced and good psychological insight on romance/marriage from male and female perspective. 4 bloodsoaked and tied up stars.

PJM: Haha. I like it a little more than that. 4.5 out of 5 for me.