Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Oh, and then there's Harper. Travis runs into her at a party, where she tells him she does not like him. Hasn't since middle school, when he spread a rumor about her promiscuity and trashed her reputation. But he apologizes, and in that apology, Travis finds himself attracted to her. He knows Harper is the kind of girl he needs right now.
Trish Doller's Something Like Normal is an emotional read and one that hits every single note right. Travis is a fully-fleshed and authentic male narrator who is grappling with not only the challenges of the home life he returns to, but also with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He's kept the PTSD private and quiet because he believes it's something that will just go away. Except it only continues to get worse during his time at home. There are so many stresses in Travis's life: he's struggling with how to be a support system to his mother when she and his father argue, and he's finding himself having a difficult time figuring out what his relationship to his father is. When he was younger, his dad pushed him to be a football player like he had been, and while Travis played along living his father's dream for a while, he eventually put his foot down and said no more. That's why he decided to enlist in the Marines in the first place. It was his way of sending a middle finger to his father and his father's dreams.
There's also tension between Travis and his brother Ryan. While Travis is in Afghanistan, his girlfriend Paige has been sleeping with Ryan. She dumps him (the classy move, of course) and tells him she's leaving him for his brother. Ryan sees it as no big deal, and while Travis acts like he's stronger than some girl's behavior, he's really not. We see this when he and Paige confront one another upon his return, and they become intimate again. But rather than make Travis feel better or worse, it sort of leaves him all together empty. It won't be the only time they get together when he's back either; when Travis and Harper are seeing one another, he sleeps with Paige again.
The relationship between Travis and Harper is one of my favorite aspects of the story. I'm not a huge romantic and I find often those story lines come off as forced or as underdeveloped in YA novels, but Doller gets it right here. Travis and Harper grow close over the course of his time back at home, and rather than experiencing instant chemistry, the beginning of their relationship is extremely tentative, careful, and cautious. Travis hurt Harper pretty bad in the past, and even though he's apologized and hasn't even thought about it for years, she's nervous to spend time with him. She's nervous to forgive him completely, too, since she has to protect herself. At the beginning, their relationship is a friendship, and it is the sort of thing Travis needs in his life so badly. He needs that person to turn to and talk with, and she offers him that space. It's safe to him and, as she learns, it's safe for her too. While things grow increasingly tense at home and with his PTSD, she's a solid place for him. Then when he finds out the parents of his friend Charlie -- the one killed in Afghanistan and the one who has been haunting him regularly -- are hosting a memorial service for him and have asked him to speak at it, Travis knows he can't go alone. He asks Harper, and she agrees and it's in those moments where we see the true depths of their relationship. Except, this trip is not just about putting his best friend to rest. It's putting his mind to rest over the fact he slept with Paige and while he and Harper aren't anything official, the guilt he has about returning to his ex eats him up.
Travis and Harper have a very healthy relationship, and while she's understandably angry with Travis when he confesses what he's done, she also realizes at that point just what she is to him and what he is to her. She seethes, and it's understandable. But when Travis needs her after the service, when he's unable to keep himself together alone anymore, she is there for him. It's in this moment one of my favorite scenes happens, and one that made my heart explode a tiny bit because it was so well-done, so thoughtful, and so realistic -- and it's a spoiler, so drop down to the next paragraph if you don't want it. While Travis and Harper have been together, they have not been at all intimate with one another, which is part of why their relationship works so well. It's based on a real emotional connection and understanding of one another's needs -- what Travis needs after a major PTSD experience is Harper's support and what Harper needs is to give that to him.
That's a lot of explanation for why Travis was a knock out character, but it amounts to this: he's not portrayed as a hero in this story. He's flawed, he makes mistakes, and he has to learn how to deal with the consequences. He's got to figure out his role as a son, as a brother, as a friend, and as a boyfriend. It's not easy, and he's not given short cuts. He has to work through. Being a Marine doesn't mean anything more than it has to here, and I think that in and of itself is what makes Travis realistic.
I haven't touched on the PTSD stuff too much because, as integral as it is to the plot, it's not the entire story. However, it is addressed near the end of the book in an honest manner that was not only fitting with Travis's character, but fitting with how I think anyone who is as young as Travis would deal with it. First with ignoring, with repressing, with hiding it, with trying to face it, with hiding it again, and then finally with addressing it through therapy. It's not at all overly sentimental nor cliche in how it's presented or dealt with.
There are a lot of plot lines in the book, and while I remained nervous about the resolution of a few of them, Doller successfully ties each of them up by the end of the book. That's not to say they're all solved nor are they all closed cases, but each of them is addressed as Travis would address them. While that in and of itself isn't necessarily the noteworthy thing, what is noteworthy is that this is a relatively short novel -- it's just over 200 pages. It's tightly written, and there aren't wasted passages or scenes. Each contributes directly to the execution of the story and the development of the characters. There's no dwelling. We know how things play out with his parents and we learn how he figures out the best way to approach Paige and Ryan in his life. We also get to see just what happens with Charlie, too.
Something Like Normal will have appeal for both male and female readers, despite the cover that appeals much more heavily to female readers (which is a real shame). Travis is the kind of guy male readers will relate to. He wants to take care of business. His dialog is authentic, his relationships believable, and his struggles are the kinds of things teens deal with regularly. The family and romantic dynamics work without becoming too complicated, overwritten, or just too much. I can see people who loved Dana Reinhardt's The Things a Brother Knows finding this a great next title -- in fact, I can see fans of any of Reinhardt's titles finding this to be similar in style. While I was reading, though, I couldn't help think how much Travis reminded me of Nick from CK Kelly Martin's I Know It's Over and I think fans of Martin's books will find Doller writes in a very similar manner. Add this one to your great contemporary stories with great male voices list, as well as your lists about military fiction, as it addresses the issues of the life of a Marine beyond the in-world. Something Like Normal will, without doubt, find itself on my favorites list for 2012 and well beyond. It is an impressive debut, and if you want to know the truth: it made me cry more than once.
Review copy received from the publisher. Something Like Normal comes out today.