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Book Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

 Book Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Travis, says his mother as Travis pours beer into plastic cups for the two of them. Leaning forward, keeping her voice low, as though theyre doing something naughty, she adds, youre not twenty-one.

Travis may not be twenty-one, but as he points out, hes a veteran of a foreign war. Having just returned from Afghanistan, and suffering PTSD after witnessing the death of his best friend and fellow Marine, Travis is in a strange, in-between place. Travis might have thought that he would be returning to some sort of comfortable, familiar stasis, but what he really finds is a limbo-like purgatory where everythings changed around himand he, unwittingly, with it. His mother has been struggling with his absence and her fears for his safety, while his father has been seeking his affections elsewhere. His brother has taken up with his ex-girlfriend in his latest effort to take away whatever Travis prizes. Its trivial enough stuff compared with life in a war zone, but Travis is a different person now, and things are starting to affect him in surprising ways: at times hes quick to anger, at others hes emotionally disconnected, and others again hes craving numbness.

But sitting in the waiting room of a counselling clinic for military personnel, Travis looks over at the other veteransall of them far older, far more traumatised, and feels as though he is seeking help under fraudulent pretences. Hes too young, too healthy, he tells himself. This despite the fact that hes struggling to sleep through the night, that he finds himself reacting to loud noises and flashes, and that hes seeing visions of his dead best friend. But its not something that he mentions, not even to his fellow leave-takers, all of whom seem to be enjoying living it up on home soil. But the sense of camaraderie and coping is smothered with an ersatz veneer. One is drinking too much, speeding, thrill-chasing: Its like real life isnt big enough for him any more, reflects another, who for his own part is spending his days desperately chasing proof of his own masculinity. Theres a masculine code her thats enforced from both within the military and from those looking on from withouta sort mentality of boys will be boysas they should be.

Traviss own emotional health is certainly questionable as well. In addition to the more salient symptoms listed above, Travis seems to be acting with more aggressiveness and thoughtlessness than he might have before being shipped out. Theres a rebelliousness to his behaviour that speaks of asking to be tested, and his tolerance for unfairness seems to have lessened. He lashes out at his brother and father in a manner that seems surprising to them: this sort of behaviour is clearly not the Travis of old. And yet, in hurting others, he also seems to strive to hurt himself. By sleeping with his ex-girlfriend (his brothers current girlfriend), hes hurting everyone involvedincluding himself. No, I dont love you, Paige says at one point, But it would have been nice if youd loved me.

Its interesting that Traviss return seems to herald a change in his attitude towards women, as well. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that its largely the women who offer support to soldiers on the groundproviding care packages and writing letters and so onbut also because the women in his life are more emotionally available. For example, though Traviss relationship with his mother seems distant at the beginning of the book, he becomes her champion by its end, motivated in part by the endless support she has shown him, and by his fathers snide reaction to her efforts, which in addition to hurting Traviss mother are also an affront to Travis. Traviss budding relationship with Harper also demonstrates a gradual transformation of his attitudes: Travis, years ago, began a rumour about Harper that has since shattered her confidence, but is finally beginning to admit to his wrongdoing and see Harper as a person.

This brings me to what I felt was probably the weakest aspect of the book: the romantic relationship. Although I did appreciate that the relationship between Harper and Travis began in a tentative, nervous manner rather than lightning bolts and the sudden desire to jump each other, I just didnt quite buy the romance: or at least, I dont quite buy it from Harpers perspective. Perhaps its that the book is written entirely from Traviss point of view, so its difficult to get much more than a glimpse of Harper, but I couldnt quite imagine that there was much more to the relationship than a close friendship. I didnt understand why Harper would be willing to spend time with Travis given that he is single-handedly responsible for ruining her reputation (and while were on that topic, I kind of loathe the idea of a female character being so smeared by a malicious rumour about her virginity that no one wants to have anything to do with her, while the male characters are free to go and do whatever they want). I also didnt buy her forgiving Travis for his shenanigans with Paige, particularly given that she is entirely new to the relationship world and has already been slighted by Travis in the pastalthough I do appreciate the open ending here, which I felt was realistic. Still, given the brevity of the book, I couldnt help but feel that a strong friendship would have worked better here than a romantic relationship.

The books brevity also means that some of the many other plot threads get curtailed and go unresolved, which is a shame. The relationship between Travis and his brother and father doesnt quite get the page space it needs to feel real, and Traviss brother and father as a result arent fleshed out as well as characters such as Traviss mother, and even his dead friends mother, both of whom feel surprisingly well-rounded. The awkward relationship with Harper and her father was another thing that was touched on momentarily, but was never truly examined. I couldnt help but feel that the book either needed to be narrower in scope so that these weaker threads were excised altogether, or broader, so that they could be given the space they deserved.

Something Like Normal is a quick yet thoughtful read that provides commentary not so much on PTSD and the war experience as the blurbs Ive seen might suggest, but rather on the identity limbo experienced by young recruits whose personal identities are still being established as theyre first shipped out, and on the complexities surrounding the publics perception of military personnel. Though I do feel that it would have benefited from some further fleshing out of the supporting characters, its a solid debut.  

Rating: star Book Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Dollerstar Book Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Dollerstar Book Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Dollerblankstar Book Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Dollerblankstar Book Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller (good)

With thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for the review copy

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  1. An interesting review Stephanie, I agree that Dollers opportunity to give depth to Traviss relationships with his father and brother was curtailed by the books brevity though I didnt mind as much as you did, especially as it is aimed at the YA readership.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Shelleyrae. I really liked the depth given to Traviss mother, and appreciated the exploration of the mother/son relationship (particularly after just having read We Need to Talk About Kevin!!). I just felt that the brother and father came across as villains because they had so little development, and thought it was a shame, as Doller clearly has the skills to be able to draw such well-rounded characters. Im definitely keeping an eye out for her next one!

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