This is the perfect example of bloggers influencing my reading — this was only on my radar because I saw a banner on Holly’s blog. Chachic, who recently reviewed it also credits a blogger for her interest in the book. And why is this debut author getting good buzz? Well, I think what she does right is her website is nice and clean and information is easy to find, she uses social media well, and she has a nice long excerpt (very crucial). All good things, but hey, most importantly – the book is a good read too!
This review is based on an eARC copy I received via Netgalley.
The Premise: Travis Stephenson is a nineteen-year-old Marine on leave for thirty days. He’s been in Afghanistan for a year and his best friend Charlie was recently killed over there. Now that he’s home, everything that was once familiar is now strange, and Travis isn’t as okay as he pretends to be. While he’s dealing with his own messed up head, he also has to deal with his less-than-ideal family life. His parents’ marriage is strained, and his younger brother Ryan is a rival, not an ally (he stole Travis’s girlfriend and car while Travis was gone). Then he meets Harper, the girl whose reputation he ruined in middle school after a game of seven minutes in heaven led to rumors he didn’t bother to curtail.
My Thoughts: There’s a lot in Travis’ life that he has to deal with. Non-trivial things. His best friend Charlie is dead. Travis has trouble sleeping and may be suffering from PTSD. He wants to pay Charlie’s mothers his respects, but he isn’t sure how to do that when he can’t even process Charlie’s absence himself. On leave from Afghanistan, Home has become an alien planet. He’s surrounded by a reputation-obsessed father, an anxious mother, and a brother that covets what Travis has. His parents’ relationship has deteriorated, and his ex-girlfriend Paige is with his brother Ryan now — but keeps showing up in his bedroom late at night. Every relationship Travis has is fraught with complications and unresolved issues.
Then Travis runs into Harper Gray, a girl who has every reason to hate him because he’s why the world thinks she’s a slut. After a good punch in the face, Harper is surprisingly non-judgmental, and Travis, messed up and floundering, recognizes that she’s someone that he wants to be around. Their past history and Travis being drawn to Harper now becomes another sign of changes in Travis. I’d normally question if Harper should forgive a guy who hurt her, but here, Travis is suffering already. Harper’s intuition that Travis is in pain and her decision not to hold a grudge (well, after that punch), makes her strong rather than weak. There was something quiet and right (and a little delicious) about their burgeoning relationship.
Just like Chachic says in her review, I have never been a nineteen-year-old boy, but I could see Travis fitting in with the ones I’ve known. Bonding with his friends from the unit means giving them all a hard time, and physical exertion is part of his coping mechanism. He really likes girls. And he’s realistically flawed. Actually, his younger self sounds rather immature: his treatment of Harper is one example, his rocky relationship with his ex is another (“We cheated on each other all the time. That’s the way it was with me and Paige–insane and toxic“). He STILL has growing up to do, and Something Like Normal captures how painful the process of adulthood can be. The the emotion underlying everything Travis says as he narrates underscores it. Every word seems to tell us just how cut up he is about Charlie and how difficult it is for him when he feels nothing near normal, but he’s trying hard – both to cope, and to be a better person. Thankfully this pain is balanced nicely with the thrill of finding a connection with someone who understood it.
If I had one criticism of this book it would be that there was a lot of personal drama and a short time frame. I’d have preferred more time on the romance or with his processing of Charlie’s death over some of the drama, but it’s hard to complain with all the threads so seamlessly interwoven. Travis’ thoughts of Charlie and Afghanistan, to his talks with Harper and his mom, to the friction with his dad, and the non-relationship with his brother – I was never really confused of overwhelmed by all of these, they were just so well integrated into the story.
I should also say – I really rooted for Travis. I wanted him to be happy, to find some peace over the loss of his best friend, and to get the girl. I finished the book hoping Travis would come back safely after the years he had left to serve.
Something Like Normal comes out June 19th
Overall: It doesn’t feel like I get to read many contemporary YA books told from the first person POV of a teen male, much less one in the military. Something Like Normal stands out because of its Marine protagonist, but add Travis’ painfully honest voice and this becomes a very personal, character driven story about a young man who has been changed by his experiences at war. Something Like Normal captures the mix of humility and vulnerability of his hard-earned maturity. The sweet, slow romance makes it all the better.
[Edited to add: I realized that my description of Travis' voice as a teenage boy was similar to Chachic's characterization, so I've updated to link to her review in that sentence].