“Old people and kids are invisible to the rest of the world… It makes us unbeatable at hide-and-seek.”
There’s a typo on the first page of this book. At least, that’s what I thought. I thought, “How weird that there’s a typo on the very first page in the very first line of this New York Times bestselling novel”. I kept reading, and there was no immediate answer. I even Googled it. “Imaginary Friend misprint”. Nothing. So, I kept reading. And, eventually, it all came together. But before it came together, it fell terribly and tragically apart.
I bought this book after seeing it in a book TikTok. A BookTok, if you will. The reviews were all incredibly promising; TIME, New York Times Book Review, and Emma Watson all sang its glowing praises. Though I haven’t read Chbosky’s smash hit The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I know enough about it through osmosis to know that Imaginary Friend is an epic (and terrifying) departure.
Stephen Chbosky is arguably best known for his 1999 coming of age novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He also wrote and directed the 2012 film version, starring Emma Watson (remember her from the book reviews earlier?) and Logan Lerman. He wrote the screenplay for 2005’s film adaptation of the musical Rent and the 2021 film adaptation of the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I was also surprised to learn that he wrote the screenplay for the live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I was surprised because, well, 2019’s Imaginary Friend is nothing like anything I’ve listed above. It’s not perky, it’s not a musical, and it sure as Hell isn’t Disney.
Imaginary Friend introduces us to a wide cast of characters, each with their own struggle in life. We meet the main character Christopher, a young boy with dyslexia and a hard time making friends, and his mom Kate. They are on the run from Kate’s abusive boyfriend and eventually take refuge in a quiet-seeming town in Pennsylvania. Kate gets a job and enrolls Christopher in a good public school, where he makes a small but loyal group of friends. Then we meet Mary Katherine, a devout Christian high schooler trying to juggle her faith and emerging sexuality. And Ambrose, an elderly army vet whose eyes are being “taken by clouds” (cataracts), and whose kid brother went missing a long, long time ago. And the sheriff, plagued by nightmares of a young girl he could not save. There are other POV’s, too- not as in depth as those listed above, though just as important. That’s a big theme with this book – everything and everyone are connected, no matter how seemingly brief or unimportant.
One day, Christopher goes missing in the Mission Street woods. He’s gone for six days. When he returns, Christopher claims “The Nice Man” saved him and helped him escape the woods, though the sheriff can find no sign of anyone else being involved. As Christopher adjusts back to life as he knew it, he knows at once that he has changed. He knows things. Awful things. Most importantly, he knows he must build a tree house in the Mission Street woods before Christmas, or the world will end. Through the tree house, Christopher can access another world- like ours, but different. It is terrorized by a monstrous woman Christopher calls “The Hissing Lady”. The Nice Man tells Christopher that he must defeat The Hissing Lady before the end of the world.
There’s a lot going on in Imaginary Friend. Much more than I can succinctly summarize (and, as a querying writer, I shudder to think of the synopsis and query letter Chbosky had to put together for this!). Multiple POV’s entwine in different plots and subplots and character arcs, and everyone’s actions effect the rest. It’s a whirlwind of nightmarish imagery and secret messages and hidden worlds that culminates into an extravaganza of tear-jerking endings (yes, I cried), horrors, and the redemption in new beginnings.
And damn, did this book hurt. It hurt my heart and soul. It made my skin crawl, it made my heart ache, thinking of helpless children in horrific nightmare sequences, facing truths and fears they should never have to face. And everything is important! How amazing it is, how the smallest actions can have the largest chain of consequences. Things you read and don’t think twice about are suddenly the most important thing that’s happened over the course of the 600+ page book. You second-guess yourself, you second guess what you read, and it’s achingly chaotic and bizarre and beautiful. There’s a confrontation of the loneliness of being too young and too old. You’re young and you want to know everything, then you’re old and you forget and you want to know everything you used to. And the power of imagination and wonder that we lose when we grow up. “Adults are bad at remembering how powerful they can be because somewhere along the line, they were shamed for their imagination.”
Underneath all the horror of this book is the pulsing strength of a mother’s love, and the perfect way children see their parents, even with all their faults. Could a mother’s love defeat The Hissing Lady, or the end of the world, or God and the Devil and everything else? Only one way to find out…
Speaking of God and the Devil, Imaginary Friend packs a bit of a religious punch. Despite it’s nightmarish imagery and body horror and general terror, there’s an underlying theme of Christianity, and what it means to have faith, and what it means to believe. “To kill in the name of God is to serve the devil.” It’s not overwhelming, though it becomes more prevalent in the last quarter of the book, and it’s thought provoking for someone like me, who was raised in religion and is now… well, this isn’t about me. Chbosky tackles big, human issues through the lens of a child stuck in what seems like a never-ending nightmare. When I finished reading, I sat and stared at the ceiling and wondered what I believe. And I’m still wondering today.
Anyway, anyway, anyway. Was this book scary? I’d say absolutely yes. It has gore, body horror, and nightmare sequences that made my skin crawl and toes curl. Children with their eyes and mouths sewn shut, literal Hellish punishments inflicted unto sinners for all eternity, torture, etc. The tension of the building plot among the different POV’s, then when they overlap and the codes become clear, the puzzle pieces align – I couldn’t put it down until I knew the end. And even then, I wanted more.
“Everyone gets an ending. Whether or not it’s happy is up to them.”
Five stars overall, three stars on the scare scale.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.
All other images are certified public domain.