“When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother’s stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It’s not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he’s had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again.”
While I had kept a mental tally of the thumbs-up Something Like Normal was receiving from a slew of bloggers, it was Janicu’s review that pushed me over the edge, prompting me to dig straightaway through various, haphazard stacks of books to find the ARC I’d received at least a month or two prior. My experience with the book proves, once again, that listening to trusted book blogging buddies pays off more often than not.
Perhaps what I appreciated most about this story was its frankness. Travis, for instance, is upfront about the fact that pushing through the recruitment office’s door fresh off of graduation was not an act of patriotism; he was looking for an escape route, the means to walk away from his overbearing father and his own apathetic view of the future. He wasn’t driven; couldn’t rouse up the desire to go to college like his peers, and so he chose the military. A daily, steady routine and miles between him and a life he no longer wanted much to do with. He’s honest about that, just as he’s honest about the keen disconnect he feels toward his family, including his mother, who supported and worried for him since he shipped out; and he exhibits a willingness to acknowledge the stupidity of some of his actions (both pre- and post- Afghanistan). The honest, frank nature of his character engendered sympathy and, as I read, it inspired trust; Travis knew what his limits were, even if he pushed himself to the brink and beyond, and that made me like him all the more.
Admittedly, the number of novels I’ve read with a male protagonist is modest at best. That’s rather unfortunate and will soon no longer be the case, because Travis’ voice was a refreshing change of pace, one I need to pursue more earnestly. I think, in fact, it’s one of the primary reasons why Something Like Normal was a one-sitting read, and in the middle of an ongoing reading drought, no less. His voice – and here I’m going to repeat myself, which I hate to do but there’s no help for it, I guess, when the word fits – was frank, it was unflinching, it was occasionally, delightfully coarse. Need an example? Here’s a brief one that had my fingers itching to dogear the page it was on:
She beams at me and it’s almost enough to make up for the fact that I’m harder than trigonometry right now. Almost.
I read that, grinned, and thought ‘Wow, that is hard.’ [insert smirk here]
Add all of the above to Travis’ internal suffering, manifesting as it does in hallucinations of his deceased best friend and flashbacks that cut more sharply than any knife or bit of broken glass could, and to the pains and problems that accompany his homecoming, and you’ve got yourself a character that packs an emotional punch.
Then, of course, there’s Harper. She toes the line of being too good to be true, in my opinion, but I genuinely liked her, and appreciated the measure of peace her undemanding presence allowed Travis. She’s smart; self-assured in the face of gossip that has persistently followed her through life; and stands her ground, making her own decisions, for her own reasons, at her own pace. Once Travis and Harper leapfrog over the hurdle of past mistakes, it’s easy to see how they might work as a couple, and by the novel’s end I wanted what they had to last.
For all that the book is small in stature (216 pages make up the ARC), Doller managed to incorporate and address a lot of life’s complications, be they the result of coming home from war or untangling the brittle threads that tie disparate family members together. And, for the most part, it all comes together to work as a cohesive, engrossing story.
Something Like Normal will be released on June 19th.