cws in this book: child abuse, toxic religion, abusive relationships, death, suicide, murder, self-harm, mental illness
It’s been a week and I’m still thinking about how this book ended.
Imaginary Friend is about Christopher, a young boy who is leaving his house in the middle of the night as his mom flees her abusive boyfriend. They settle in a small town in Pennsylvania, and Christopher begins to create a new life: despite ridicule for his learning disability and pants that are much too short, he begins to make friends.
Then Christopher goes missing for 6 days.
Christopher is found, stumbling out of the woods, seemingly unharmed and alive, thanks to who he calls “the nice man.” The sheriff and hospital staff chalk it up to the trauma of being alone for so long. But soon, strange things begin to happen—Christopher’s learning disability disappears, and more than that, he becomes a genius. His mother wins the lottery, and buys a big house next to the woods. Christopher begins to hear voices, beckoning him to the woods, to build a treehouse. Is Christopher going crazy, like his father? Or is the nice man more than a figment of his imagination?
I’ve been meaning to pick up this book since it came out, but after the original “this is the man who wrote perks hype,” I didn’t really hear much about it again, which made me wary. And it’s so long. I was worried it would drag. All that, plus I had never read a horror book before. I was surprised to find that this exceeded all of my expectations and is definitely a favorite of 2020. The plot gripped me from the beginning, and the detailed setting and characters kept me hooked throughout the 700 page monster.
I adore the way Stephen Chbosky writes. I listened to this on audio, and I was addicted to listening to his smooth cadence of sentences (ONLY the greats could make me listen to a 25-hour audiobook). Chbosky just has this way of capturing childhood. I will say that a common critique of this book is that Christopher doesn’t act like a child—which for reasons clear at the end of the book, some of this is due to Christopher being much more than an eight-year-old boy. But I also think there is something to be said of Christopher’s trauma—living in an abusive household with his mother’s ex-boyfriend, his father committing suicide and finding him—these sorts of traumatic events often make children wise beyond their years. The writing was also very nostalgic—for a small town, for the wonder and fear of childhood. As Christopher becomes more gifted, you can sense his own nostalgia for simpler times, when his biggest worry was a playground scuffle. I will admit that at the end, I felt the writing depleted a little bit. Things are pretty ambiguous up until the very end, it became a little too obvious for my taste.
I loved this story. Again, I’m new to horror, so this was unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I found myself having visceral reactions as the events unfolded. I kept thinking I was at the climax of the story, and then something else would happen. All of the side-plots happening with other characters were well-developed and stacked up to create a really rich story. The twist in the third act shocked me, but maybe that’s just because I’m not well-versed in this genre. Reflecting, I do think parts of the resolution felt a little rushed, but it also leaves the ending to be ambiguous in a way that I enjoy. I don’t want to discuss the plot too much, because there are so many twists that I don’t want to spoil!
There are a lot of perspectives in this book, and I found all of their voices and motivations to be quite distinct. While Christopher is the main protagonist, we also see the perspective of his mother, the town sheriff, Christopher’s best friends and class bullies, Christopher’s teacher, the school librarian, and a teenager named Mary Katherine, who begins as a side character but slowly weaves in until she is integral to the plot.
The most important character relationship in this book is between Christopher and his mother. Christopher’s main motivation through this story is to protect his mother, and his mother’s main goal is to keep Christopher safe. The love Christopher has for his mother only deepens as he becomes smarter and understands more about his mother and the sacrifices she made for him. Love is a powerful force that becomes increasingly important throughout the book.
The setting is ultimately what sucked me into this book. Chbosky perfectly captures the life of a small town and the ways in which people’s lives are stitched together. The way that history survives in this town is perfectly reminiscent of how rumors and history happen in real life. As a small-town dweller myself, I really appreciated the way in which Chbosky did not rely on rural stereotypes and created a town that felt both familiar and unique.
Themes (Mild Spoilers)
While the story itself is interesting, the themes in this book blew me away. The theme that get’s taken away the most from this book is Chbosky’s commentary on God, the Devil, and religion in general. Religion makes us, as a society, commit acts of the devil. We become blind to our own sins. Being intimately familiar with the Christian religion and horrors of toxic Christianity, I thought this was done in a really interesting way.
But another theme that I think is more subtle, is the ways in which we are all traumatized—this is particularly evident from the many characters who are children, all grappling with major problems such as abuse, mental illness, and violence. The idea of growing out of childhood, the loss of innocence, and the ways in which bad people are created, that was the theme that really surfaced for me. This was really evident in Christopher’s character, as he becomes more gifted and enlightened, but it’s true through all of the children’s storylines. Through this book, through the span of a few months, these children come to know things they didn’t before: family secrets, pain, violence, and truth.
Overall, I loved this book. The seamless integration of multiple perspectives, the nostalgic feel for childhood and the flawless way in which Chboksy writes about community creates a compelling tale with thought-provoking themes. If you are new to the horror genre, Imaginary Friend is a great place to start. If you have any interest in reading about children, small towns, or religion, you will really enjoy this one. I know I sure did!