This blog post wasn’t initially going to have that name. I planned it all out, set on calling it ‘Five Favourite Stand-Alone Novels’ when I realised a truth (that sounds far more dramatic than the moment actually was); it is very rare that I actually read a stand-alone novel at all. The majority of the books I enjoy most are part of a larger, ridiculously expanded plot that spans across three books or more. It was then, therefore, that I thought I was really going to have to narrow this down to the two that I truly consider my favourites. I find myself realising that it is actually much harder for me to enjoy a stand-alone novel than it is for me to enjoy a series as I am always looking for complex characters with ambiguous motives that don’t always get enough time in one book alone. The two I have chosen, however, exemplify in my mind (bearing in mind that I still have a lot of books to read and therefore this list is in no way definitive), a truly incredible novel without the need for expansion. Happily, I also came to the realisation that of my two favourites I have included both a pre-20th century and 20th century text; some diversity there if nothing else. Without further ado, and without spoilers:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky- First Published 1999
‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is set in 90s America, and follows the life of its protagonist Charlie as he attempts to navigate his way through his freshman year of high school. Charlie is an introvert; prepared to live his life on the side-lines whilst everyone else lives theirs in the spotlight, and it is not until he meets a group of people with an entirely different outlook on life that he starts to realise he can live his own life, too.
I doubt there is going to be a time in the foreseeable future where this book will not be classed as one of my favourites. First and foremost, its characters are some of the most original and believable of those that I have read in Young Adult literature. Each character is beautifully crafted to have their own story arc whilst not detracting from the novel’s main overarching message, and each interacts with other characters in a way that is consistently hilarious or heart-breaking. Charlie’s story is one of pain, but also one of new beginnings and the power of friendship. Sam and Patrick’s arcs follow a similar route, and I found myself honestly and wholeheartedly wishing for the happiness of each of them. Chbosky writes romance in a way that is not shown, in my opinion, in many other examples of YA lit; Charlie and Sam’s story is a metaphorical rollercoaster of devastation, optimism and self-discovery that at its core reflects imperfection but also true and honest love.
It is worthwhile mentioning that ‘Perks’ does contain extremely difficult and hard-hitting themes. Many very real issues are addressed and I think this is what makes it so painfully honest. It is the mark of a fantastic storyteller, however, that Chbosky manages to integrate humour and some of the lighter moments that teens deal with when growing up in a way that prevents a mood that is always dark, all of the time. I must admit, as well, that the 90s setting was particularly appealing as I have not actually read much from this era and having being born in it, this was a fantastic opportunity. In addition, to use a term recently learned in my English Literature class, ‘Perks’ is a fantastic example of an epistolary novel. That is, written in the format of letters written by Charlie to a friend. I feel that this adds a whole new dimension to the novel and adds to just how unique it is as the reader feels truly connected to Charlie as he pours his heart and soul into these letters.
In short, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is a truly wonderful novel that makes you think deeply, and stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. As a sort of side note, the film adaptation featuring Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller with screenplay and direction by Stephen Chbosky himself is virtually flawless, and one of the best book-to-film adaptations, in my opinion, of all time (but read the book first!)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde- First Published 1890
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ begins with its protagonist Dorian Gray on the day he is having the portrait painted that will determine the rest of his life. Wishing that the portrait would absorb his aging rather than himself, Dorian sets off on a life of beauty and desire while ignoring the inevitable outcome of his actions.
I first read this novel last year, partly out of curiosity and interest, and partly because I felt the Gothic theme would fit well with my study of Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, ‘Wuthering Heights’, and I was not in the least disappointed. Oscar Wilde weaves a story of morality, fear and the consequences of hedonism in Victorian London. Although having a basic knowledge of the plotline beforehand, I found myself being constantly shocked both by the events occurring within the novel, and also the way in which Wilde does not hold back on what is sometimes very graphic and gruesome descriptions, particularly in Dorian’s spiralling descent into the character he eventually becomes.
Part of what I found particularly appealing about the novel was the setting. Grand manor houses juxtaposed by the gas lit streets and opium dens of London was interesting from the start as I knew that mystery would be lurking around every corner. I also found Dorian to be a particularly conflicted protagonist at the centre of this setting; one unlike many that I have read of before. Morals and conscience are pushed aside to make way for his unrelenting pursuit of infinite beauty which, ultimately, serves to provide the basis of Wilde’s overarching message about the importance of kindness and the lack of need for materialistic gain.
I could go into further detail about these novels, however once I get started it would be very difficult to both avoid spoilers and avoid discussing everything that I wish I could. Therefore, to finish I would highly recommend ‘Perks’ as a moving coming of age novel for teen and up audiences, and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ as a good introduction to both classic novels and the Gothic genre. Both do contain very upsetting themes, however, so reader discretion is advisable.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post; the book haul that I mentioned in my last post should be up soon, but in the meantime, have a really lovely day!