Title: Imaginary Friend
Author: Stephen Chbosky
Date published: 2019
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer: Jonathan Ball Publishers in South Africa kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
I didn’t think it would be possible to read a 700 plus page book in a few days but I did. For me this is quite rare and rather extraordinary. It bodes well for the book and for a writer who has only published one other novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), and that was ten years ago. If you, like myself fell in love with Chbosky’s coming-of-age tale then you will know that it’s author has an undeniable talent in capturing not only the human condition, but also the importance of representing the human soul and all that it entails. I’m running away with myself here for a reason (there is always method in my madness), and it is because Chbosky himself ran away with his own story. I’ll get to that a little later but for now we’ll start at the very beginning…
Christopher Reese is an eight year old boy living with his mother Kate Reese. They’ve had a bad run of things and after Christopher’s dad commits suicide Kate ends up in a relationship with a bad man named Jerry who hits her. In this scenario Kate doesn’t wait around for it to happen again and she and her son disappear in the night to make a life somewhere else. They end up in the small town of Mill Grove where very little happens it seems. They move into the closest motel, Kate gets a job at Shady Pines the local retirement home and for a while they are the outsiders and Christopher must start a new school and make new friends. At Mill Grove Elementary he meets Eddie Anderson ‘Special Ed’ and the M&Ms, Matt and Mike who have two moms. They become inseparable, but also become a target for the school bullies, Brady Collins and Jenny Hertzog, who have their own sets of problems at home. It is worth noting at this juncture that Chbosky acknowledged Stephen King in the beginning of the book citing the author inspired this novel. In so many ways Christopher, Special Ed, Mike and Matt remind me so much of the kids in The Loser’s Club in King’s 1986 novel IT, and I honestly don’t believe I am the only one to make that comparison.
Christopher struggles academically but his mother’s eternal optimism and general survival mode keeps her from letting it get them down. Kate and her son are extremely likeable characters. The love between them is immense, and the friendship between the four boys is heart-achingly nostalgic. Despite living in the motel their lives are at least starting to resemble a happy one as even Kate becomes close with Ed’s mother the booze-loving Betty, and the M&M’s two moms. In their own way they start to belong.
All of this is interrupted when Christopher sees a face in the clouds and wanders into the Mission Street woods only to return six days later… That’s when strange things start happening in the town of Mill Grove. Not only to Christopher but to the whole town. Suddenly Christopher and his close friends are the most academic in the class receiving the highest marks for all their tests. Christopher and his mother also receive an enormous amount of good luck in the form of a lottery win which changes everything for them, including being able to finally move out of the motel. Not long after his return a man only Christopher can see and hear convinces him to build a tree house in the very woods he disappeared into. This man is referred to only as ‘the Nice Man’.
At the retirement home Ambrose Olsen steals the show as the foul-mouthed old man who was involved in a tragic incident involving his younger brother David almost fifty years prior. Considered a bit of an urban legend in Mill Grove this incident has left Ambrose a very embittered man whose sense of humor is both a relief and an enigma. The town’s Sheriff who serves as a possible new love interest for Kate Reese also has a dark past that haunts him in the form of the mysterious ‘girl with the painted nails’.
Another character worth mentioning is the young Mary Katherine whose Catholic guilt and overall innocence are shaken up when she is the one to discover Christopher on the side of the road after he disappears. Along with the rest of the town she will also start to experience strange feelings that will have her questioning her life choices, especially all of those made in the distant past.
As I mentioned in the beginning Chbosky’s narrative drags a bit into the realms of what seems a typical thriller in the beginning but veers off into a Biblical battle between good and evil. The story of a fifty year old cold case turns into an epic adventure story that turns a group of young boys into heroes. The boys must save their small town from the darkness continuing to threaten it, even if they are not quite sure what they are saving it from. Even if the reader has no idea what they are battling, it is clear that this Evil presence is making everyone sick and must be stopped before more horrific things continue to happen.
Described as a horror, Imaginary Friend is also very much the philosophical conversation, and despite its slight tendency to ramble in the last two hundred pages the novel is undeniably compulsive. You will find yourself falling in love with the people of Mill Grove, and rooting for the good to overcome the bad. A modern classic in my opinion.