Author: Trish Doller
Publication Date: 6/19/12
Blurb (GR): When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother’s stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It’s not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he’s had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again. Travis’s dry sense of humor, and incredible sense of honor, make him an irresistible and eminently lovable hero.
In this male-narrated upper YA/new adult book, Travis has just come home after a deployment with the Marines. In many ways, he is returning to exactly what he purposely left behind--his overbearing and disapproving father, his pushover mother, and his resentful brother, but he himself is coming back to that situation a somewhat changed young man. Doller treats her characters realistically; no one suddenly sees the light or does a complete 180 in this book. Travis was emotionally traumatized by the death of his best friend in action and at the end of the book, he still is, but just to a lesser extent. He begins a romance with Harper and she helps him deal with a few situations and issues in his life but at the end of the novel, I wasn't particularly rooting for them to succeed. Was I supposed to be? Probably, but I just wanted Travis to be able to deal with his PTSD and patch up familial relationships. I was reluctant to go into the book as a romance and to those readers who have similar feelings, I say go for it. Something Like Normal reads like an episode or story arc from one of those juicy teen drama shows that so many of us enjoyed in high school, college, and ashamedly sometimes still enjoy as adults. Travis is that tortured soul with so much to say and no capacity to express it. Harper is that girl from back home who's understanding, forgiving, and you wish you'd gotten to know her through your shared high school years. There's moments where you'd gasp or shake your fist at the screen if you were watching them, times to roll your eyes, and the entire last quarter of the book is for the sad puppy dog eyes. I didn't cry, but I bet you might.
Sometimes I get angry at a books because of choices characters make. It was very interesting to compare and contrast parts of Something Like Normal with another I was simultaneously reading (well, listening to), Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr. In both books, a young man has done something that tarnishes a girl's reputation for several years. How does she deal? Should she forgive and forget? In Story, Deanna stumbles around her life, trying to figure out why she made the choices she did and what she can do in her current situation. It's angsty, it's heavy, and it takes 192 pages for Zarr to tell the story. While I certainly do not believe that all people take the same amount of time to process and forgive wrongs, I am still surprised when something I consider to be serious seems flippantly tossed aside to move the story along. You were called names for years because of a lie someone told? Here's a thought: Don't date him a few years later. I was borderline ecstatic when Harper treated Travis like dirt when they first met back up -- the elusive YA character, a girl with a backbone. Tell him how his actions adversely affected your life, Harper! What? What's that? Yes, he is rather attractive, I guess. He's changed? You're going to what now? Er, well, this is awkward. Perhaps I am just envious of people who are so able to believe others have changed, to forgive those people. But Doller does not try to write likable characters, and that's what I really enjoyed about the book. I hated that Harper started dating Travis, I hated that she seemed to forgive him*, I hated that Travis' ex-girlfriend took up with his brother when he deployed, I hated the brother for "stealing" his girlfriend and car, I hated the dad for being an awful person, I hated the mom for not sticking up for her children, I even hated some characters because I didn't think they grieved enough. But I didn't hate this book at all. Not every person is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Also, lots of people do stupid things.
As one of my Short YA list books, I read Something Like Normal in one sitting. This is Doller's debut work and though this wasn't one of my recent favorites, there's an authenticity of voice that rings through her writing and makes me want to read more from her. The dialogue is anchored in reality and for the most part, the writing is devoid of that poetic nature that many readers crave. I, for one, am not always looking for that, and thus I found this book to be an easy and enjoyable look into one soldier's life.
*Just as an aside, am I the only one who wishes that this book had been dual narration? STOP THE PRESSES! This might be the first time I've ever said this before. I wanted to know Harper's side to everything.