[This book review will avoid sharing spoilers but cover basic plot points! It is intended for people who haven’t read Imaginary Friend but are considering it. So, if you like going into a book with no idea what it’s about, then just pick up the book and start reading it! But if you’d like to hear my detailed opinion, onward!]
If you’ve read and loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower like I have, then the fact that Imaginary Friend is written by Stephen Chbosky may intrigue you as well. This one caught my eye because as a high schooler, Perks was my favorite book, and although Imaginary Friend promised to be nothing like its young adult masterpiece predecessor, I was excited to crack into it because I love Chbosky’s writing and how he tells a story. (Sidenote: and if you haven’t read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, do that too!)
In fact, Imaginary Friend is a book totally outside of my ordinary—-its genre could be considered horror or psychological thriller, while I typically read standard fiction. So part of the enjoyment for me was delving into a book very different from other books I’ve read.
This 700-paged book begins when seven-year-old Christopher and his mother Kate move to a small town in Pennsylvania to escape Kate’s abusive ex-boyfriend Jerry. The mother-son duo do their best to make ends meet, but their financial reality is hard; Kate tries to shield Christopher from the truth, and even though she is able to get a job at Shady Pines, the town nursing home, they still struggle to make ends meet. The love between them despite all their hardships is paramount, and it becomes clear that Kate would do anything to give her son the best life possible—-even take him to McDonald’s for a treat when she has crippling debt.
One day after school, Christopher follows a mysterious cloud and wanders into the Mission Street Woods, where he becomes lost for six days. His mother is devastated, but miraculously, he is found running wildly out of the woods one night, and is hospitalized to ensure his well-being. Christopher has almost no recollection of his days missing, and after a full recovery, he returns to his normal life with his mom—-except now, the pair are even further in debt from the accrued hospital bills. However, all things don’t totally return to normal: while Christopher was previously dyslexic and struggled in school, he is now able to read and comprehend at an advanced level. And just as they are on the brink of financial desperation, Kate plays Christopher’s math test answers and wins the lottery.
Which means that they are able to move into the perfect house… Right next to the Mission Street Woods.
Then, Christopher begins to experience a voice. No one else can hear it, but it tells him he must build a treehouse in the woods. It gives him all the skills and knowledge to build this treehouse, and despite the few challenges that arise to complete this project, mysterious forces intervene so that Christopher can continue on with construction. He is even able to enlist some of his friends to help build it, until its elaborate architecture is completed.
This is when the story really begins.
Reading this book was like watching a movie. Chbosky’s vivid imagery and poetic descriptions brought the characters and events to life, and the suspenseful manner in which he unveiled the story was masterful and thrilling. Whole hours of my day would flip by with the pages, and it was easy to plow through 100 pages like it was nothing on an afternoon off work. Sometimes my heart would be racing, and even though I felt too excited to sit still, I forced myself to read on because I had to know what happened next; other times, I would feel creeped out by the images described, and want to cover my eyes like I would during a movie, but because I was in the middle of a climactic scene, I had to keep reading!
Although there was some disturbing imagery, even as someone who doesn’t typically read horror, I would say that the “fear factor” of this book is anywhere between mild and moderate. Honestly, the creepiest part of the book for me wasn’t even graphic at all; there are a plethora of graphic scenes that should have been more frightening to me, but it was actually the normalcy of when a character on TV turned to Christopher and started addressing him personally that made me squirm the most, something about how this innocent cartoon turned demented made me uncomfortable. There were some nights I couldn’t read this book before bed because I was scared of the bad dreams I would have, and then there were other nights where I didn’t care about the consequential nightmares—-I needed to get further in the book! (And even now, having finished it a few days ago, I’m still experiencing residual weird dreams!)
Characters and Development
This is a big book. So, there’s lots of time for Chbosky to develop the characters, which he does beautifully. Within the first hundred pages, the reader really understands the essence of Christopher and his mother, along with a medley of other characters in their Pennsylvanian community. Through subtle details, such as how Kate donates her last 17 cents to the charity jar at the grocery store, or how Christopher watches his mother chain smoke cigarettes and feel concern for her because he knows this means she’s stressed out, Chbosky characterizes the cast of people in this book with excellent craftsmanship. So while the reader knows that Christopher and his mother have hearts of gold, the reader also knows what kind of person the sheriff is, what motivates little Brady Collins, the kind of struggles Ambrose has been through, what Ms. Lasko deals with each day, and many, many other characters.
I have to say, it’s quite impressive how well Chbosky mapped out each character’s arc throughout the entirety of this book, and how thoroughly he kept up with them as the story unfolds. I made the comment to Bryant after I finished the book, “It’s crazy how Chbosky knew what every single character was doing at each moment, and how he conveyed that; you were never wondering, ‘Oh, well where’s Jenny? What’s Mrs. Henderson doing now?’ Although, sometimes I’d be reading about the other characters like, ‘This is cool, but I want to get back to Christopher now!'”
While I was still in the first half of the book, Bryant read the last chapter and epilogue of the book (only knowing what I had told him happened so far), and he psyched me out about it. “Wow, I have no idea how it gets from what you’ve told me to the ending. That’s crazy!” After that, it was me racing to finish the book to know what he had found out!
Reading the book from start to finish, the ending is fairly intuitive. There are so many ups and downs along the way, so many parts where I wondered how there could possibly be any way for this to end in Christopher’s favor, that by the time I closed the book, I felt that its conclusion was really the only way this story could have satisfactorily ended.
I won’t say that the ending was abrupt, because everything that happened in the book led up to that moment, but there was a small part of me that thought, “Just like that?” Perhaps it’s because I read the last 200 pages in one fell swoop, and I will say that considering what the characters had gone through, it was by no means “easy,” but I still felt like it wrapped up a little suddenly.
That being said, I read through the acknowledgements, and one of the people Chbosky thanked was Emma Watson, who played Sam from The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the 2012 film adaptation. He writes that she “inspired the ending on the Perks of Being a Wallflower set,” which is pretty interesting! It makes me wonder specifically what elements of it she contributed!
If You Liked…
If you like Stephen King novels, this is an easy recommendation. In fact, in addition to Emma Watson, Chbosky pays thanks to Stephen King, “who inspired everything else,” and although I haven’t read any of King’s novels, I can imagine how threads of Imaginary Friend may have payed homage or were grown from some of King’s works.
If you’ve watched the Netflix show Stranger Things, I also noted some parallel elements in Imaginary Friend. Christopher can be likened to Will, and Kate can be likened to Joyce. Christopher has a friend group of young boys, and there’s a sheriff in the picture. Not to mention some of the creepier plot points, which I won’t spoil!
And, if you enjoyed Harry Potter, then I would also recommend this book to you. I won’t say why, but I believe Imaginary Friend will appeal to lovers of the Harry Potter saga.
The back of Imaginary Friend is covered in positive reviews, from John Green who writes that the novel is “pulsing with the radical empathy that makes Chbosky’s work so special,” to Blake Crouch who comments that this book “reminded [him] of discovering a classic Stephen King novel from two decades ago, but all funneled through Chbosky’s utterly unique style.”
The last review is written by Emma Watson, who writes: “Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Imaginary Friend says that no matter how dark the places you have been or the things you have seen, no one and nothing and nowhere is beyond redemption. What is astonishing and laugh-out-loud genius is that Chbosky has disguised all this wisdom in an entertaining thriller. In true Stephen Chbosky style, he gives you the bran and the doughnut. Spiritual enlightenment and horror. I don’t know how he did it. But he did it. It’s a masterpiece.”
Watson’s review is spot-on: among all the bad, the ugly, and the worse, I began to think of humanity. How we interpret the world. How we treat each other. How we love each other.
After finishing the book, I looked up reviews that weren’t featured on the book itself, and discovered that it’s pulling a 3.6 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. There is a good amount of feedback from underwhelmed readers; some say that the book was too long and they stopped caring along the way, others said that the believability of the book interfered with their enjoyment (i.e. they felt that Christopher is too young, the time period was set in modern times yet school children still used vocabulary like “floods” for pants that are too short for a kid), and a few felt that Chbosky tried to pack in more meaning and references than necessary. (If you read these reviews yourself, be warned that they may contain some spoilers!)
My opinion about these reviews is… Sure, that’s fair. There were a few times I had to suspend my inner hater and just go with the story (which allowed me to enjoy the book and have way more fun reading it rather than be a sour sport about it), and yes, it may have been quite a long book for “not a lot of payoff.” But for me, the book wasn’t just about the ending. It was the experience of reading it that I enjoyed. (Isn’t that why you read a book? To read the whole thing, not just the ending?) I love Chbosky’s writing, and I love how he played with the punctuation and the font at certain times, and I love how he tenderly describes life. And although it went heavy on some of the allusions, I don’t mind that because I can understand what he is illustrating. None of the minor issues I have with this book outweigh the enjoyment I experienced. (Plus, as a writer, I have a different perspective: this is a piece that Chbosky clearly wrote for himself and our opinions are pretty irrelevant to the integrity of his art!)
As a writer, I would recommend this book. As a reader, I would recommend this book. It was incredibly fun and imaginative, and it was a perfect read for me this October. I’m glad I went out on a limb for this one, and afterwards, I now feel more open to reading other horror books. If you are an experienced reader, I’d say this thrilling story is a no-brainer. If you’re a writer, you will most certainly appreciate Chbosky’s style.
Besides, maybe some of the crazy dreams you have from reading it will inspire your own writing!
Thanks for reading.
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