Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Review: The Art of Being Normal

Photo Credit: Amazon

Rating: 5/5

[Warning: This review contains spoilers]

The Art of Being Normal, Lisa Williamson's debut novel, is a story of two boys, whose lives intertwine and who both have one thing in common.

David has a secret, and apart from his two best friends, he's never told anyone: ever since he can remember, David's one wish has been to be a girl. Every day, he records the progression of his physical  attributes--height, weight, chest, Adam's apple, penis size--as the threat of puberty looms closer. He has a scrapbook filled with mementos and memorabilia--from photos to articles--as inspiration for who he truly wants to be. At school he's bullied and called Freak. All the while, David tries to get up the courage to finally tell his parents the truth.

On his first day, Leo is known as that kid who got kicked out of his last school. But Leo wants more than anything forget about what happened last February... Along with this, his home life is less than perfect, having a strained relationship with his mother--who never seems to be around to take care of her kids--and desperate to hunt down his biological father.  Then Leo meets Alicia, and while he find he's falling hard for her, a part of him is afraid of getting too close...

What I loved about The Art of Being Normal...
There's so much that I loved about this book. The characters are so real and engaging and full of depth. The story has humor but also contains moments that are incredibly poignant and shed light on very real situations, from one's home life to bullying at school to struggles that many transgender teens go through, whether it's the fear of disclosing their identity to others or being afraid to take that first step and show their true self beyond closed doors.  

What I especially thought was interesting about the difference in David's and Leo's perspectives is how you expect that when someone gets to the point where they're openly transgender, their life will suddenly be a happy ending... when that isn't always the case. It's revealed later on in the novel that Leo is transgender, and while his mother allowed him to be who he wanted to be, his home life isn't great. His mother is often out with her boyfriend--who Leo resents--leaving him and his sister, Amber, to take care of their little sister, Tia. There isn't always food on the table. They live in a pretty run-down house in a lower-class neighborhood. Meanwhile, David isn't out as transgender, yet for the most part his home life is pretty comfortable. He has parents who love him, a little sister who's only a slight pain, and a dog. When Leo comes out to him, David is envious that Leo's mother supports him, yet Leo wishes he could tell David that it's not that simple. I think this is a great way of showing this contrast of their lives and how the grass is always greener on the other side, and one of the ways that I think the split perspective does well for the story in looking into the very different experiences of two transgender teens.

As David and Leo form a friendship, I also love how David continuously refuses to give up on Leo, despite the walls that Leo has built around himself. Leo's used to being on his own, but David is incredibly caring and goes out of his way to reach out to him and let him know that if ever needs someone, David is always there. Does David perhaps lay it on a little too thick? Maybe, but I still think it's so sweet that no matter how many times Leo tries to shake him off, David reassures him that he's not going to get rid of him that easily. (Warning: this book is full of cute and supportive characters)

Now, let's talk about Essie and Felix.
Along with David and Leo, the other characters I immediately fell in love with were David's two best friends, Essie and Felix. They're that epic duo that you just know right off are going to be awesome. They're so funny and have the best wit and comedic timing. Most of all, their personalities are so palpable, they truly feel like two people who I could imagine going to high school with (If I was in England, that is!) 

Okay, but is it weird that the entire time I thought of Essie and Felix, I totally pictured Sam and Patrick from Perks of Being a Wallflower?

...You know, if Sam and Patrick weren't brother and sister but actually the oddest yet cutest couple ever. For me, this comparison is spot-on. Much like Sam and Patrick, Essie and Felix are what you might call misfits at their high school. They're those two weird friends you have who blurt out the best one-liners, who are loud and over-the-top, who are completely unashamed of themselves and may embarrass you to no end, but who are still always there for you when you need them, supporting you no matter what.

From the day they became friends, Essie and Felix have always accepted David for who he is and shown him nothing but love and support. (It's also honestly so cute that they have a special code name whenever David's crush is within range...and of course are always completely obvious about it. I mean, really. If that doesn't say friendship, I don't know what does.They're the only ones who David really trusts, and the only ones who know about his deepest secret of being transgender. 

Even in the end, they show their support by surprising David with an alternate prom, where he is able to make his debut as "Kate" and feel safe and secure as his true self.  This just shows how immensely they love and care about David, to the point where they're willing to do anything to help him find happiness. It just... gah! It gets me write in the emotions. There are no better friends, period, than Essie and Felix.

There's just one thing...
For the most part, I absolutely loved this story through and through. But there was just one final detail at the very end of the novel that left me with a feeling of "...Huh." I really don't know how to feel about Alicia going back to Leo in the last few pages. Earlier in the novel, Leo discloses his transgender identity to Alicia, who instantly pulls away and doesn't want to see him anymore. While Alicia never tells anyone else about Leo being transgender, in a way, the fact that Alicia doesn't tell anyone about him being transgender also demonstrates to Leo that she's ashamed of him, which hurts him more than anything else.

So after avoiding him like the plague for the rest of the novel, it just felt strange to have Alicia show up on Leo's doorstep in the end, greet him with a "Merry Christmas," and say, "Let's just forget that whole thing ever happened. Will you take me back?" I definitely thought there should've at least been more of a build-up to this moment and for the two of them to properly discuss what happened and reconcile, especially since this is something that can't just be easily forgotten: it needs to be discussed. There needs to be a conversation between them about being transgender, about what that means, about what made Alicia feel uncomfortable about it. And honestly, I don't know if I even wanted Leo to take her back at that point. It certainly made me re-evaluate Alicia's character, and with her return being so abrupt and close to the ending, I was a bit let down that she was let back in so easily when this could've been a teachable moment.

Final Thoughts:
The Art of Being Normal is a fantastic queer novel, especially for transgender teens. Through both David's and Leo's perspectives, it shows more than one story of being transgender and tackles a wide array of topics. Even still, the theme of love and support is always there. It's a book that will both make you laugh and cry, and remind you that there will always be people who will accept you no matter what. With unforgettable characters and the compelling story-telling voices of the main protagonists, I'm absolutely going to be putting The Art of Being Normal on my list of great queer novels, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

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