I recently took the plunge and requested a book for review purposes. I was first altered to The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson from some random clicking around Goodreads, my favorite way to waste time. At the time (and frankly until I wrote this post), I thought the book was already published, but just unattainable to me. Disappointed, I tabled my quest for the book and moved on to other things. As I mentioned in an earlier review, I read Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin about a gender non-conforming teen, Riley, who was struggling to fit in at their high school. I really enjoyed the book and wanted to read more about trans* teens. I was poking around on NetGalley the other day, and I stumbled across The Art of Being Normal again. Needless to say, I requested a copy and dug right into the goodness.
Now that you’ve heard the uninteresting fable about how I actually received the arc, let’s talk about the novel. This novel is written in the alternating point of view of two characters, David and Leo. David is struggling with wanting to identify as female, hiding this from their parents but being open with friends. Leo comes from a dangerous, low income area. They have a twin sister, little sister, and an absentee mother. We know that Leo attends therapy and is transferring to a school in an affluent neighborhood, but that’s all the reader gets from the onset.
At the heart of this novel, and all YA novels, is the story of a couple of teenagers trying to figure out life in the bodies and environments in which they’ve been born. There’s an air of mystery surrounding the book, and particularly Leo’s character, which is revealed almost half way through the book, to no surprise to me given the general topic. There’s also the story of friendship that builds between Leo and David, not organically but by great effort, as a lot of close relationships do. Even though this novel’s focus is on trans* identity, it just doesn’t focus on that, it focuses on how humans live life.
There were a number of things I liked about the book that I think help its approach-ability for someone new to the topic of transitioning or gender identity. One of the first things is David’s lack of knowledge about the topic. There’s a lot of focus on how David feels and how he desperately wants to escape his body, but he’s slightly clueless as to how transitioning actually works. Although he’s done some informal research on the matter and read news articles, the language he uses in the book is sometimes wrong and awkward. I appreciated this, because it helps remind the reader that he is in fact 14. It allows it to be okay to start somewhere on your quest for knowledge; even knowledge that intimately has the ability to affect your happiness.
Another thing that was really great in this book was the environmental development. While at times I think that Williamson could have worked harder at developing Leo and David, particularly David, as characters – their settings were highly developed. It was easy for me to imagine Eden Park high school, Leo’s neighborhood in Cloverdale, and the Tripton-on-Sea inn where they spend a weekend. These environments help give life to the characters, making them feel like people you might one day meet.
Although I have a lot of positive things to say about this book and its content, I ranked it 3 stars. It’s a solidly enjoyable book that’s neither light nor heavy, which is an accomplishment given the topic and some of the events that take place. However, there are parts in the book that are simply boring. Leo is a much more developed character than David, which makes the chapters narrated by David seem to drag on and on. There are also a series of minor characters (David’s two best friends, Leo’s family) that aren’t developed at all and seem to only hold the place for some filler dialogue.
Given all of the legislative nonsense that has been occurring in the United States, this book is an encouraging read that definitely humanizes the trans* experience for people who might not have been exposed to it yet. I’d recommend it for anyone who is curious about this topic.
Until Next Time World…