The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson
Published by David Fickling Books on January 1, 2015
Genres: [Young Adult] Contemporary, LGBTQ+
3.5 Stars, Completed June 17, 2016
– read bold text only to avoid SPOILERS –
“Who wants to be normal anyway? Fancy that on your gravestone. Here lies so-and-so. They were entirely normal.”
The Art of Being Normal shares a story about two people with very big secrets. Ever since grade school David Piper has been known as the school freak for writing, “I want to be a girl when I grow up.” But he’s had two best friends that have cheered and supported him throughout the years-that is until he becomes the third wheel when the two best friends decide to upgrade from being “friends” into “in a relationship.” Around the same time, Leo Denton, has just moved to David’s school. For Leo, all he craves for with this new institution is a chance to maintain an invisibility that he lacked at his last. Once the two meet, David and Leo are immediately drawn towards each other for unknown reasons, and they soon form a comfortable and sincere friendship.
So I have a lot of positive things to say about The Art of Being Normal.
First, I think it’s wonderful that Lisa Williamson, a cisgender author, wanted to tackle a story with transgender characters. I feel like these books are so rare since I know cis authors are afraid of misrepresenting these individuals. In fact, this is actually my very first book with a transgender protagonist. However, also being cisgender myself, I can’t vouch if Williamson accurately represents transgender youth with her characters, but I did notice that she mentioned she worked at the Gender Identity Development Service for two years. She may have sought feedback from the people she worked with when she was there.
To not overcomplicate the main ideas, I liked that the story remained simple throughout. The standalone really is just about two young individuals that yearn to find a place in a very judgmental society, but it’s also a story about two people that recognize that sometimes not being normal is okay, too. Being normal is totally overrated anyway. And, though simplified in regards to plot, this novel was a fast read for me since the storyline really drew me in and kept me engaged until the last page. It was also a pleasant surprise to find this a UKYA read-the way it was written and the places that were described made this pretty apparent early on, which was certainly something I could appreciate seeing I don’t think I’ve read any UKYA titles before. There’s also a slight twist (I say slight because it should be predictable to most readers) that’s nice and doesn’t feel at all forced.
As for the writing, The Art of Being Normal is written in a dual perspective (which I tend to dislike if it’s done by one author), but the main characters earn the readers’ sympathy easily and there was a good enough distinction between the two narratives. Also there’s a clear header of whose perspective is being featured at the beginning of each chapter, which also helped ward off any confusion for readers.
And, most importantly, I also thought this was an intriguing standalone especially for cisgender people that want an introduction to more diverse books or trans issues. However, on the other hand, this was also a disappointment. I couldn’t help but feel slightly let down because I didn’t find The Art of Being Normal a greatly important read as I had anticipated. Since both characters are still too young to start the surgery or hormone replacement therapy, it’s more of a story about two people planning to transition. The struggles and social oppression the characters face appear genuine, but aside from that I didn’t seem to learn as much as I’d like to.
Another big flaw that I noticed with this novel was that apart from the two main narrators, I didn’t feel emotionally connected or understanding towards the rest of the supporting cast. David’s friends and family, Alicia, and the people in Leo’s life could have easily been interchanged for another book’s set of characters without changing the emotional impact. All the cis people were strangely too simplified and one dimensional in this for some reason.
And yet another reason that gave me the resolve to give this book 3 stars was the mini arc with Leo’s father. I felt like it was sort of unnecessary and didn’t add much to Leo’s story other than show how depressingly bad his life is compared to other teenagers. (I digress… but I’m still waiting for the day when all the parents of a YA book are alive and happily married. I know separation, divorce, and death are normal life changes that are omnipresent especially in today’s age, but I’m also disappointed by how few books can illustrate a character with a happy family and upbringing (well aside from the Weasley’s).)
To conclude, The Art of Being Normal is an easy read that may give cisgender readers a glimpse of trans issues. However, it isn’t a life changing story that will wow (both cis and trans) readers or make them see the world differently. But as a novel, the writing and storyline is overall engaging and the two narrators are endearing for the majority of the story. The Art of Being Normal wasn’t as informative or enlightening as I’d hoped, but it still is a good UKYA title I’d recommend to others nonetheless.
Quotes were taken from an uncorrected advance readers copy.
Special thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Netgalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review The Art of Being Normal. In no way did this affect my reading experience or honest review.