writing (critical level): 4.5/10
character design: 4.5/10
would I recommend: No. I recommend this book about as much as I recommend drinking battery acid.
This book is everything other books are but worse. It doesn’t do anything right. It doesn’t work as a mental health novel. It doesn’t work as coming of age. It’s too dark to be light reading and too light to be heavy reading. It’s too awkward to be a teen novel for most teens. It has a very specific audience. Like maybe half a per cent of all readers. That small audience will love it. Everyone else shouldn’t be reading it.
The Catcher In The Rye is everything this is but better. Coming of age? Substance abuse? Wanting to clutch to the past? Liking girls? Being mentally ill? Yeah, Holden totally has PTSD and anyone who argues otherwise is wrong. I can’t tell you what Charlie has though. But yes. Catcher is better in every possible way. This novel is trying to be Catcher but never reaches the same level of impact.
This point is driven home by constant references to better novels. Chobosky decides to reference books like The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird. And honestly, it just serves as a reminder that Wallflower is a shit book that has no hope of comparing to TKAM or TGG. This then also is a poor decision because Chobosky is constantly trying to tell me Charlie is intelligent but then never shows him being intelligent other than throwing around classic book titles. I read classic novels. Most classic novels are trash anyway. Also, it’s insanely pretentious to talk about reading classic novels. I’d far rather be told someone is reading Twilight than be told they are casually reading Wuthering Heights. Charlie gets high and drunk out of his mind and discusses masturbation. Like I’m reading two different characters. The clever wannabe novelist and the unhealthy teenager. Chobosky decide which character you want to be writing.
On that topic… I really hate hearing about my protagonist getting off. I do not need to know about my protagonist’s sexual fantasies and masturbation habits. It’s just not what I wanna read. I just as equally don’t want to hear about other characters sexual interactions all that much. At one point he is straight up talking about how his best friend took the top position in the gay sex he was having. At another point he tells me (and this is honestly unfathomably enraging) about how he watched a girl getting raped and just didn’t do anything. I genuinely thought about punching a wall reading that. You get this heartbreaking and detailed description of how Charlie literally just sat down and watched as a girl was forcefully raped. I honestly can’t even. I don’t even have the words to tell you how terrible that was to read. If I could remove any piece of writing from my memory that would be it. It was traumatising. I don’t care if the man has a gun. I don’t care how much bigger than you he is. If you see a girl getting raped you goddamn do something. It’s the only crime worse than murder. It’s made worse because Charlie doesn’t even have his own safety to worry about. He shows time after time he’s an experienced fighter. He totally could have done something to an unarmed rapist. But he just doesn’t. Don’t talk to me about how Charlie is mentally ill or traumatised or was too innocent to do anything. There is no justification in the world worthy of what he did. Just sitting there and watching. That’s beyond words. I can’t. I don’t even want to talk about this anymore. It makes me sick to my core.
I don’t like diary style novels. This is a diary style novel. Adrian Mole is the only set of diary novels that I don’t hate and those are straight up comedy while this is a mess of being serious (literally there is abortion and domestic abuse in this novel) and being humorous (the smoker uses an anti-smoking leaflet as a bookmark). The format doesn’t work. It felt too light and childish to work. While I’m reading about the use of drugs and homophobia I really don’t want you to be formatting the novel in the same way as Diary Of A Wimpy Kid.
There’s a scene which I think summarises the writing ability of Chobosky perfectly. He uses the phrase “And my” nine full times in a row to start his sentences. It’s not cute or poetic. It’s just terrible.
Charlie is also a horrible character to read. Being a reader I hate him. He is so lost with life that he reads The Catcher In The Rye five straight times. Like I get that the novel is set twenty or thirty years ago and technology wasn’t really a thing. But being so sad and lonely that you read a novel five times? come on Chobosky. Also, don’t justify it with he has obsessive tendencies. I have obsessive tenancies. Those are thinking about someone all the time or having rituals. Not reading the same 70k words five times. Oh, and if you’re gonna talk about obsessive tendencies I feel like if you wanted those to be a part of his character he would be a far heavier smoker/drinker/drug user than he is. Ten a day and the occasional chain smoke isn’t anything special. Also, I absolutely hate how every book he reads becomes one of his favourites. That’s dumb. Some books are shit. Admittedly he’s reading classic books for the most part and those are normally at least decent quality on a critical level but come on. He’s meant to be an intelligent critical genius. Loving every book he reads is just silly.
There’s actually a really profound quote in here that hit me. I wasn’t expecting it. I like that it’s in here. Probably the only thing good about this odious collection of words.
“We accept the love we think we deserve”
That just meant something. As an out of context quote though. In the context of the novel, it’s actually pretty messed up. Considering it’s in reference to a girl who is acting in love with the man that just hit her around the head.
One of the big things about Charlie is that he’s telling me about everyone else’s life because he doesn’t have his own. Sam is correct when she ends the novel telling him to live for himself. I would’ve liked to have seen Sam get with him but those are for my own selfish reasons. I still like to dream the little boy has a shot with the big beautiful angel. Even if I know it’s not a realistic dream. That’s my own life getting in the way of my ability to be analytical I guess. It makes complete sense that they don’t get together because Charlie is a pretty trash human being but I’m still not happy about it. But back to the initial point. Charlie is constantly talking about his family and friends and everything other than himself really. We really don’t spend much time with him. This is his diary but it’s not his story.
Another thing is this is very much a nineties novel. In thirty years the kids really aren’t gonna get this. It’s dated. I was born a few years after the novel was published if I’m getting my dates right. And even I’m struggling. Some of it is fairly obvious like Nirvana and mixtapes. That I can understand. There’s other stuff that’s less understandable or relatable. Like records. And needing to use a house phone all the time. I just can’t connect with that. The novel is very much of the time it was written and I can’t imagine it staying relevant for more than another decade. This is not going to replace Catcher as the coming of age novel you give to your kid.
There’s a moment where in my notes I’m hoping the protag kills himself. Just because it would be the first interesting thing to happen in the whole book. This is a book about nothing. It’s just the life of some loser teenager who can’t bone the girl he wants to and gets intoxicated by a string of substances while reading classic literature. It’s incredibly uneventful. And all the main events are the protag putting himself into dangerous or weird situations because of his undefined mental illness. I’d personally put my money on something personality related but just as equally, he could just be a traumatised kid, hell maybe he’s got PTSD like Holden. I can’t be bothered to find out what he’s actually got or if Chbosky told anyone. Basically, the guy just does really random things and is a major social outcast with very little hope at functioning in normal society.
The book can’t decide if it wants to be heavy or light. We have rape, drug use, homophobia, love, lust, sex, social dynamics, feminism, abortions and domestic abuse in the same novel as scenes where the protag is feeling weird about swearing in his diary and using phrases like “I’ve made a terrible mess of things”. It’s a book that has potential to make you both laugh and cry on the same read through but not in a good way. The splits and shifts happen so fast it’ll give you whiplash. This is a major contributor to the reason the novel lacks a set audience. You go from your protag being half way to getting laid to having him waking up in a mental hospital and it being heavily implied he was abused as a kid. It moves too fast. Another hundred pages might have been a good thing in this case. Just to pace it better.
I thought I’d share a wonderful gem from my notes. “Fluff you Mary-Elizabeth. To Kill A Mockingbird is a masterpiece”. One of the more annoying characters decides to call the greatest novel I’ve ever read a bad novel. I wouldn’t mind but this character is sat in one of the worst novels I’ve ever read. Which seriously devalues her opinion.
I really don’t like how Charlie manages the situation with Mary-Elizabeth. Her being pretty and assertive is no reason to be touching a girl you clearly don’t want to. He is very obviously in a relationship he wants no part in and he just doesn’t really do anything about it. Until he kisses the girl he actually likes in front of his girlfriend. And that’s just a dick move. All it would’ve taken is “you’re a good girl but you’re not right for me” or something equally as pathetic. There was no need to break two hearts at the same time. Learn to communicate… and say no. I guess with his past it has the ability to make some sense but even then it annoys me.
I don’t hate Charlie. I hate the things he does. He just manages every situation so poorly. He digs his own grave too many times for me to feel pity in the same way I do with other characters. Tom Robinson (To Kill A Mockingbird) if we want a different book as an example is a completely innocent victim. Sam if we want an example from this book is far more innocent in the pain she faces than Charlie is in the pain he faces. Some things like his childhood abuse (implied) and the suicide of his best friend are in no way his fault. Other things, however, such as the situation with Mary-Elizabeth are very much self-created.
Sam is probably the most tragic character of the whole novel. Her boyfriend cheats on her from the very start of her relationship. She has to deal with mixed emotions about the half-cute half-weird younger guy crushing on her. She also has her brother who is dealing with heavy stuff that she’s probably worried about. She also has college and such that’s happening as well. Then there’s the fighting that happens with her close friend Mary-Elizabeth after Charlie ruins everything. It’s just kinda a mess for her to be honest. She could use a hug I think.
The writing in this novel is meh. Which is why I’ve waited so long to talk about it. Because this novel is written in Charlie’s voice and is a diary novel it’s bad. Descriptions are hazy and it’s very character driven. It’s like Twilight in terms of description but worse. The general writing feels awkward and clunky and it’s a hindrance. Again this is because Charlie is narrating and he himself is painfully awkward. It’s very casual even with its serious topics which I think enforces Charlie’s detachment from reality. It can’t be a critically strong novel in terms of writing because the format forces Charlie to be telling the story and quite frankly Charlie is a shitty narrator. He’s biased and awkward and annoying and seeing things from his perspective just isn’t enjoyable. A third person narrator might have actually worked better… or not having the book exist at all.
I’m going to end this here. I don’t have much more to say but I do want to quickly acknowledge one final point. The teenagers here I can’t say much about their realism for twenty or thirty years ago but I can say their realism now is bad. They are all far too innocent on topics such as substance use and sex and even swearing. Most twelve-year-olds can graphically describe those things to me now. And anyone denying that just needs to walk along my local high street and see the chavs in their underage glory. Likewise, they don’t reflect teen issues that well. Depression and anxiety rates are high but not high enough that they’d be your entire cast. Alcoholism and drug use rates are equally high but not high enough that every character in the novel should be doing those things. Having so many sexually and domestically abused characters in a cast of maybe ten or so is probably a little high but I’m really not all too informed on either of those issues. Also, the way characters dance between relationships at least from what I’ve seen is a little too often. Most people I know are single. And those that are in relationships tend to be really established in them. And when breakups do occur rebounds are rarely as sudden as some of these are.