Originally published on It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy!
I’ve wanted to read it for a while because a) when I was a teacher, my students were always reading it; b) the trailer for the film had me intrigued; c) I remembered something about “gay themes;” d) Sarah* recently mentioned reading it and I am highly susceptible to suggestion; but mostly e) my iPhone battery ran out the other night when I was in Cambridge, and I needed something to occupy myself during the hour-long public transit ride home.
The first thing I noticed was that it took place in 1991, meaning that Charlie is one year older than me. It turns out the book was published in 1999, when I was a senior in college, which explains why I never heard about it until I was in regular contact with high school students again a few years later. But just as when I finally watched My So-Called Life earlier this year, I was so swept up in the setting’s ability to recapture the specifics of my high school experience that I forgave a lot of things that might have otherwise annoyed me about the book.
And that’s the thing. This book so distinctly recalls my high school experience that I wonder if Stephen Chbosky and I weren’t friends. There’s no one character that maps to me or any specific friends (except maybe Patrick), but the group of kids portrayed in the book is exactly the crowd I spent freshman year with. I know, I’m not the first, last, or only kid to have formative experiences around The Rocky Horror Picture Show and making a zine and reading Naked Lunch and feeling bad for not liking or understanding it and driving around just for the sense of freedom. But that’s the point of the book, right? That we’re not alone.
When I mentioned the book today at work to a colleague who’s just a little bit younger, she mentioned that she and her friends all read the book in high school. I said that I was aware of it because of my former students, adding that I think it’s on the syllabus in most high schools now. She was surprised, saying that in her day it was definitely the kind of book that was passed around behind teachers’ backs because it was dirty.
I hadn’t gotten to the “dirty” parts yet when we had that conversation, and even now I’m more… shocked? I don’t know. surprised, I guess, by the drug content than the sex. But that tells you a bit about who I was in high school too.
(I had originally, accidentally written “who I was in high school tool.” Paging Dr. Freud.)
Anyway, I’m glad I read it, but learning that Mr. Chbosky wrote the screenplay to the misguided film version of Rent has left me with more complicated feelings than anything in the book itself.
(* Was it Sarah? Now I can’t find the post. Regardless, whether it was Sarah or someone else, I agree with her assessment of the ending, in that it wasn’t handled well, but I think the lack of visibility of that kind of situation with that kind of gender dynamic in other popular books makes it important even if ham-handed, so the educator in me gives it a pass.)