the art of being normal // book review

9

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

★★★★ 4 stars

Two Outsiders. Two secrets.

David longs to be a girl.

Leo wants to be invisible.

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…

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n.b. David Piper is referred to with male pronouns throughout the review as he is so within the novel.

If you’re looking for trans issues in YA and somehow haven’t managed to pick this up yet, you’re missing out. The Art of Being Normal is an excellent first step in having this kind of representation prolific in literature, good for those seeking out trans characters and those who might be unsure on the topic and want a little guiding through. It’s by no means a be all, end all, a-to-z of trans issues – in fact there are a number of things the book doesn’t discuss at all – but it’s a very nice and highly recommended place to begin.

The Art of Being Normal is about David Piper, a transgirl who is coming to terms with their identity, and Leo Denton, mysterious outsider who arrives at Eden Park School with a mean chip on his shoulder and what seems like a lifetime of secrets. Not every ruffian is incapable of defrosting though and sometimes a well aimed punch and the extension of friendship can form the beginning of a great story.

The dynamics between David and Leo were astute. Told from alternative perspectives the narration explores the middle class life David leads and contrasts this greatly to the harsh, sharp, jutting one that Leo experiences. David has parents that love him, even if he can’t be honest with them, whilst Leo has a mother that’s barely ever home and a father long out of the picture. Lower class characters seem rare in realistic contemporary YA and I have no idea why, perhaps most simply find it easier to write about characters who aren’t affected by money? Williamson does not shy from the grimy estates and I think this really helps to bring the story to life, fully exploring the ‘otherness’ Leo feels. The story would not be the same without Calderdale’s existence.

“‘No,’ he says. ‘What I mean is, I get it.'” – Chapter 26

As the story progresses the blooming friendship between the pair develops. It’s not as straight forward as relationships usually appear in YA and Leo wrestles with accepting the friendship for a great deal of time but when the two break down the barriers between them and share their secrets they become bonded for life. The moment isn’t poetic or stupid, it’s funny yet heart-breaking all at the same time. Without divulging spoilers, Leo’s past will pull at your heart strings for sure.

“‘Besides,’ Dad says, ‘who wants to be normal anyway? Fancy that on your gravestone. Here lies so-and-so. They were entirely normal.'” – Chapter 40

I enjoyed how Williamson didn’t ignore the importance of family in the novel, particularly considering the implications of having to come out to them. David’s parents, who have been prepping themselves for so long, expect him to come out as gay at any second, not realising that their child is trans. His sister, particularly relationship she has with their mother, forms both an interesting and important contrast to that which David has with either parental figure. We get to see how David wishes things could be. Nothing is glossed over here, not even the stomach churning moment Livvy starts her period.

On the other hand Leo is much closer with his twin sister Amber, even though he hides a significant amount of his life from her. They understand each other, their relationship implicit rather than thrust under the reader’s noses. Tia, the youngest of the three Dentons, is an adorable angel I can only hope finds a good life in spite of their mother’s neglect. Family is clearly important to Leo and as the story develops we begin to comprehend that issues like these are a lot less black and white than they first appear.

However overall I felt that The Art of Being Normal lacked a little bit of umph. In general the story was great, the characters even more so, but what could have been a really gritting tale of hardship is actually quite light, fairly fluff filled, and is a simple, enjoyable read. Of course, it deals with important trans topics and the taunting horrors of transphobia but it isn’t as hard hitting as I first expected. But can we blame the book for that? Williamson clearly meant to go down a very direct route and I commend her for that. Without the widespread success of this perhaps future books that tackle the same problems would not have been written. I truly do think this is a great introduction, which is why I awarded it 4 stars, but it is not as exceptional as it truly could have been.

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