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Imaginary Friend


Imaginary Friend

No one will ever accuse Stephen Chbosky of attempting to flood the market. His first novel, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, was published 20 years ago and is a classic in every sense of the word. While Chbosky has not been idle since then --- he is an accomplished screenwriter --- he hasn’t exactly been ripping out books every year, or even every decade, either. When word first circulated that he had a new novel ready for publication, there was a great deal of anticipation. Now that IMAGINARY FRIEND has made its appearance, we learn that it has little in common with its predecessor.

PERKS was a relatively short book, while the new novel exceeds 700 pages without a bit of waste. While Chbosky’s debut was literary fiction, this one straddles the genre lines of thriller, horror and fantasy. While PERKS made readers happy and sad, IMAGINARY FRIEND keeps them on the edge of their seats while scaring the heck out of them. The books share a couple of similarities, though: both, in their very different ways, are coming-of-age-novels, and they are superlative works that are not quite like anything you have read before.

"Don’t be surprised...if your copy of the book bursts into flames of its own accord at some point.... It corkscrews its way to an ending that you won’t expect, but is all the better for it."

IMAGINARY FRIEND starts out sedately but with a low thrum of tension. Following a haunting vignette occurring a half-century in the past, we meet Christopher Reese, who is seven-and-a-half years old, and his mother, Kate. They are newly arrived in a small town in Pennsylvania, which is all but off the map. Having escaped an abusive relationship, Kate finds a job in due course, while Christopher adapts to being the new kid in school, slowly and not without some growing pains. That he is saddled with some challenging learning disabilities does not make his life any easier, but his encounters with the school bullies are balanced by his friendships with three other boys.

Christopher’s life takes a markedly positive turn when he makes the acquaintance of someone he refers to as “the nice man.” He goes from remedial classes to advanced reading and math, and suddenly life becomes much better for his mom as well. However, Chbosky is merely setting up the chess pieces before lighting the board on fire. The man needs Christopher’s help with someone known as “the hissing lady.” Only they can see her (at least at first), but what is a contest between the man and the lady turns into an all-out war that will involve the town and points elsewhere.

When I say “war,” I mean war. Think of IMAGINARY FRIEND as a rollercoaster ride, with the first half or so being relatively sedate until the track crests the top and starts downward, which is when the brakes give out and the riders realize that a good 20 feet of the rail are missing. Then things get difficult.

Maybe I’ve said too much. Don’t be surprised, though, if your copy of the book bursts into flames of its own accord at some point. It’s a parable, a retelling of the world’s oldest story, and perhaps a blasphemy to some. It corkscrews its way to an ending that you won’t expect, but is all the better for it. Save lots of time for IMAGINARY FRIEND. You’ll need it and want it.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 4, 2019

Imaginary Friend
by Stephen Chbosky

  • Publication Date: October 6, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Horror
  • Paperback: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1538731355
  • ISBN-13: 9781538731352