Book Review | The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

the-art-of-being-normal-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: The Art of Being Normal
AUTHOR: Lisa Williamson
PUBLISHER: David Fickling Books
RELEASE DATE: January 1, 2015
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction, LGBTQI+

Is “normal” worth changing for?  Through its split narrative style, The Art of Being Normal explores the universal themes of identity and self-acceptance from the perspective of transgender teens.  

Only David’s best friends know she’s a girl.  She’s pretty happy with life at the moment, if only she weren’t so nervous about coming out to her parents.  When the new kid defends her from a bully, David is determined to get to the bottom of his mysterious past.  But Leo is a tough nut to crack.

The narrative of The Art of Being Normal is split between David and Leo, identifiable via different fonts.  David is an extraverted transgender girl with a supportive friends network and parents who try hard to be cool.  On the other hand, Leo the loner gives off a brooding vibe.  However, once we get inside his head, we learn how his past shaped him into the person he is today.  I personally found him the more empathetic narrator, possibly because his world is easier to visualise.  Vivid descriptions of his home and his relationship with his alcoholic, serial-dating mother perfectly capture his lower-class life.  I found Leo’s story of reconciling himself with the father he never knew, and navigating the treacherous high school dating scene was believable and engrossing.  I was able to relate to aspects of his journey, especially his self-doubt and self-view.

Because ‘normal’ kids don’t have six files’ worth of notes on them.  ‘Normal’ kids don’t have mothers like mine, who tell you life isn’t fair with messed-up glee, like the unfairness of life is pretty much the only thing they know for sure.  I’ve spent my whole life being told I’m the complete opposite of ‘normal’ – page 94

Throughout the plot, David’s goal is to work up the courage to come out to her parents.  Compared to Leo’s more complex motives, I wasn’t convinced David’s motive was strong enough to drive her actions for the entire plot.  Especially considering her overt self-confidence and how obviously loving her family is.  While coming out is completely unique to the individual and involves a plethora of challenging emotions, I don’t feel that David faced enough internal or external obstacles to prevent her from achieving her goal way earlier in the plot.

Mum and Dad like to think they’re really cool and open-minded just because they saw the Red Hot Chilli Peppers play at Glastonbury once and voted for the Green Party in the last election, but I’m not so sure.  When I was younger, I used to overhear them talking about me when they thought I wasn’t listening.  They’d speak in hushed voices and tell each other it was all ‘a phase’; that I would ‘grow out of it’; in exactly the same way you might talk about a child who wets the bed – page 10

By representing transgender teens, The Art of Being Normal deals with themes that are relevant to a much broader YA readership e.g. fitting in at school, bullying, dating, developing identity and independence, and relationships with parents.  Overall, I think Williamson covered these topics realistically.  I found Leo’s first experiences of dating particularly truthful and gripping.

I bet already his parents assume he’s going to be a typical boy; that his favourite colour will be blue or black or red, that he’ll play football and like cars and trucks, that one day he’ll get married and have babies.  And even if he’s not typical, even if he likes ballet or baking cakes or kissing boys instead of girls, they’ll still imagine that their little boy will grow up to be a man.  Because why wouldn’t you? – page 134

Although the writing style is ordinary, the compelling pace saves the day – that is until the last third of the plot veers into the land of Cinderella endings.  I feel like the believability of the story was shattered by the breakout of so many rom-com clichés in the wrapping-up phase.

The Art of Being Normal is a fun but flawed journey through the eyes of transgender teens.  While it contains many thought-provoking, relevant themes, it should only be the starting point for anyone who wants to learn about LGBTQI+ issues.  


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