IT'S BEEN A WHILE. I've been reading a lot lately. I'm also in the process of putting together a book room (rich folks call this a library) in our spare guest room. I even have my first bookshelf! Which is already currently full, so I'll need another.
The Art of Being Normal
by Lisa Williamson
Goodreads rating: 4.21/5.00
Two boys. Two secrets.
David Piper has always been an outsider. His parents think he’s gay. The school bully thinks he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the real truth – David wants to be a girl.
On the first day at his new school Leo Denton has one goal – to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in year eleven is definitely not part of that plan.
When Leo stands up for David in a fight, an unlikely friendship forms. But things are about to get messy. Because at Eden Park School secrets have a funny habit of not staying secret for long…
Here's my casting! Don't get mad at me, but Kate is not trans IRL. But Leo is! Most of ya'll will recognize Leo from a little TV show called Shameless?
And so from left to right:
The Art of Being Normal starts with 14 year old David Piper, recollecting at how at the age of 8 he responds with, “I want to be a girl,” when asked by his teacher to share to his class what he wanted to be when he grew up. Kate, whose birth name is David, struggles with her fear of being rejected by her family if or when she comes out as a male to female trans woman. With her best friends, Essie and Felix, by her side, Kate lives an otherwise isolated life surrounded by her peers who are predictably mean and have nicknamed her, “Freakshow.”
Kate’s upper middle-class parents are compassionate and kind, supportive and loving, and yet predicting displeasure and distress, Kate cannot confide in them that she is not David. It is this quiet desperation that author Williamson captures so well, with ever-growing puberty sabotaging Kate’s petite and feminine body. Time races against her, and she keeps a notebook tallying all the ways biology is running it’s course. She measures herself obsessively, and is discouraged at the feeling of being a stranger in her own body. Nonetheless, she stays in the closet, dresses as neutral as possible (thank god for school uniforms), and silently cringes when everyone around her refers to her by “he” and “David.”
Then comes Leo Denton… a handsome and intriguing introvert. He comes from a challenging home, where money is sparse and, besides his twin sister, emotional support is in even more short supply. He is haunted by his father’s absence, abandoning him when he was a baby. Leo can’t help but have this deep disdain for his mother, somehow convinced it’s her fault his father left. Transferring to Kate’s fancy private school, Leo is adamant to keep to himself – keep his head low, keep his mouth shut, and graduate. However, when Kate finds herself at the horrific butt of bullying, Leo can’t help but jump in.
The Art of Being Normal shares a story about two people with secrets. The story is told in present tense, and each chapter is told in alternative first-person narratives – often times interlocking the story between each character. Once the two main characters meet, Kate and Leo are immediately drawn towards each other for unknown reasons, and they soon form a comfortable and sincere bond.
My optimism for this book came to a screeching halt when it is revealed that…
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
…Leo is trans, only because it is revealed through a sexual situation with his girlfriend. He's outed by exposing himself. That was super uncomfortable, and honestly I think this was written in this way because of its cis-author to act as a major plot twist. But it felt so, so wrong. And the whole thing really broke my heart for him, especially after the persistent bullying at his old public school in the aftermath of his initial transition from a female to male trans man.
I also couldn’t handle Kate being referred to as David throughout the entire book, except for a few chapters here and there, as well as using the wrong pronouns – especially from Kate’s confidante Leo, even though Kate refers to herself as David and uses 'he' in her own internal monologue. It just felt odd? Also, after Kate comes out to Leo, even after this, Leo STILL refers to Kate as David in his internal monologue, but only refers to her as 'she' when she's wearing feminine clothing – which only happens, I think, twice. That's something that really upset me. Add onto that fact that it’s written so many times that, “David wants to be a girl.” Kate is a girl. She doesn’t want to be, she IS. Also – why is there a rainbow on the cover, and not a trans flag? No one is gay here. Sexuality and gender ARE TWO TOTALLY DIFFERENT, SEPARATE THINGS. Ok, now I'm nit-picking when in reality I actually did really like the story itself.
Another flaw I felt this story had was with the supporting characters – the girlfriend, the twin sister, the best friends. There are so many important people in the two main character’s lives that there could be so many amazing sub-plots within this story. For example, Leo’s father. That’s one of – maybe – two sub-plots of the story, and it falters so hard. It didn’t add anything to the story really, it only showed why Leo was depressed and hard on himself, and his family. But it could have been so much more interchangeable without changing the emotional impact. When faced with that sub-plot, it’s so rushed and suddenly poof! It’s gone, done and over with. I really wanted more of that story, and how it connects with his mom and his twin-sister.
Even with these flaws, Williamson’s prose and beautiful character development still made me enjoy this book. Being cis, though, it may be my privilege saying this. I would implore everyone to read more trans reviews of this book. I don’t think that this book is harmful, but is it helpful? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Williamson has taken on the challenge of writing a YA novel about trans teens and, for the most part, succeeds. The characters of this story feel real, it kind of makes you feel like you’ve met them before or know them in real life. The voices of Kate and Leo are youthful and naive, but in a good way. Although this book comes with it’s flaws, it’s a pretty respectable YA novel about trans lives and trans issues. It’s a good story for parents to read, educators, and friends of trans folks, especially in the usual YA age range. I really look forward to reading Williamson’s new book, All About Mia, next. I’ve been missing my mystery/thriller stories, so I’ve been kept busy reading those. I also made a new friend who WROTE a book, and I’ve had the pleasure and honor of getting to read it. It’s a phenomenal fantasy/YA type novel with magic and awesomeness. Maybe they’ll let me write a review on it some day for PRISM?
About the author: the ever-so-cute Lisa Williamson
Lisa was born in Nottingham in 1980. She spent most of her childhood drawing, daydreaming and making up stories in her head (but never getting round to writing them down). As a teenager she was bitten by the acting bug and at 19 moved to London to study drama at university.
Following graduation, Lisa adopted the stage name of Lisa Cassidy and spent several happy and chaotic years occasionally getting paid to pretend to be other people. Between acting roles she worked as an office temp and started making up stories all over again, only this time she had a go at writing them down.
My rating: 3.5/50