Charlie, a modern-day Holden Caulfield, reminds me of myself when I was an uber-angsty adolescent. That’s the good thing about reading Young Adult Fiction as a middle aged adult: you have a broader worldview which allows you to appreciate teenage angst in a deeper way. You’ve been there and back. You’ve lived through it. You know there’s a way out. You understand.
Charlie is looking for understanding. He feels out of place. His only friend in middle school killed himself last year. He’s starting high school, anxious and friendless. He works up the courage to sit next to two seniors, Patrick and Sam, during a football game. Patrick and Sam are step-brother and step-sister. They take Charlie under their wings like another sibling, introducing him to their lively group of misfits who drink and smoke and dress up like the characters from The Rocky Horror Picture Show every week when they attend a screening.
Patrick is gay and dating a football player who wants to keep their relationship a secret. Sam is dating a college guy who seems OK but later we find out he’s a jerk. Charlie is in love with Sam, but he’s too insecure to act on his feelings. After Sam and her boyfriend break up, instead of feeling glad about it, Charlie hates to see Sam hurt. It’s then that he realizes he really does love her:
“I never once thought that it would mean Sam might start liking me. All I cared about was the fact that Sam got really hurt. And I guess I realized at that moment that I really did love her. Because there was nothing to gain, and that didn’t matter.”
Charlie’s family is mostly warm and supportive, but they also have their share of dysfunction. Chbosky does not shield the reader from emotionally wrenching details of Charlie’s early childhood. If you like books where bad things never happen to good people, this book is not for you.
It not a total downer, though. Charlie is a super charming character. He’s smart and funny and prone to see things other people don’t notice. I found myself rooting for him to find his place in the world. After many ups and downs, including psychological breakdowns, Charlie assures us that even though life is tough and things won’t always go his way, he’s fine, just fine. And so are we.
Chbosky wrote and directed the movie version of his novel. I preferred the book, but that’s probably because I watched the movie on the same day I finished reading the book, so I kept thinking of all the things the movie left out. If you plan on watching the movie, I recommend either watching it before reading the book, or watching it several months after you finish reading the book.
Trigger warnings: childhood sexual abuse, suicide