But what has been done can’t be undone. My best friend is dead and I’m never going to be the same Travis Stephenson.
Trish Doller’s remarkable debut, Something Like Normal, is one of those rare books that I recommend to nearly everyone. It’s an important, timely novel—one that’s lingered with me in the months since I read it.
Well before SLN was published (it’s out on June 19), I found myself on seemingly every social media site insisting the everyone—absolutely everyone—read this novel about 19 year-old Marine Travis Stephenson, who’s home on leave in Florida following a tour-of-duty in Afghanistan where his best friend, Charlie, dies before his eyes. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (a fact kept hidden from the Marines, as that would torpedo his military career), Travis finds himself feeling like and outsider in his own home and hometown.
As we head toward the beach I notice the differences in the landscape of the city. New businesses that weren’t there last year. Old businesses that are gone. It’s like a whole chunk of time has just … disappeared. The songs on the radio are different. The faces on the celebrity tabloids at the airport newsstand were people I didn’t recognize. There’s even a new American fucking Idol.
Early in SLN, Travis reconnects with a girl from his past, Harper, but Something Like Normal isn’t another story of “girl saves troubled boy.” This is a story of Travis saving himself and allowing people in his life to care about him, to help him. It’s a story of Travis finding his path, and finding his own version of normal in the wake of a devastating loss. And it’s ultimately a story of forgiveness and redemption.
Travis’ and Harper’s relationship is the backdrop for much of the story (though I have to reiterate that SLN is not about The Romance). It’s beautifully crafted and feels very real.
Our eyes meet for a moment and I look for something. Anything. But then her gaze falls to her flip-flops with a shyness that kills me in the best possible way.
Also, Harper takes Travis turtle watching, which is just about the most romantic thing in life. (Seriously.)
The romance develops between the two in a believable, realistic way. Something Like Normal is categorized as young adult, but it most definitely doesn’t contain any of the weird, unrealistic YA relationship development that’s become so common (i.e., platonic sleeping WTFery, shivery kisses that never progress, artificial conflicts over ridiculous Big Misunderstandings). Harper and Travis’ relationship grows and hits bumps in a heady, difficult way that actually makes sense for the place the two—both as individuals and as a couple—are at in life. In a word, it’s refreshing.
One of the most striking elements in Something Like Normal is the tight friendships between Travis and his friends in the Marines—so much so that he’s almost at a loss when that type of closeness doesn’t exist within his own family.
Even so, shouldn’t it feel good to be with them again? Why do I feel closer to a group of guys I’ve known less than a year than I do my own family?
Their tight-knittedness is remarkable in that they’re all so different, but they’re (to state the obvious) bound together by the shared experience of their deployment, all isolated in a way from their previous “normal.” For me, this was where much of the magic of Something Like Normal lies—in the familiar banter, the almost-mean teasing, the pranks, the bets,
“Solo, man, that was so not fair,” Kevlar protests.
I snap the bill between my fingers. “I’d say it almost makes us even.”
Moss laughs and fist-bumps me, and I feel the most normal I’ve felt since the day we got back from Afghanistan—except when I’m alone with Harper. These are my brothers. This is my family.
There were moments in which Something Like Normal make me a bit uncomfortable, quite frankly. Travis is a 19 year-old Marine and being in his headspace was a challenge at times. This isn’t a criticism, it’s actually a compliment. There’s a moment early on in with Travis is thinking about his experiences in Afghanistan (Laura pointed this out to me and I ended up going back and re-reading that section) and Travis’ narrow view on the country and people of Afghanistan is pretty jarring. But, at the same time, it felt real. If Travis had been super-enlightened and had incredibly nuanced thoughts on the subject, it would have read strangely.
The raw realism of Travis’ thoughts are tough to read and the same goes for the language in the dialog between the Marines—both were often way out of my comfort zone.
But, I wouldn’t want it Something Like Normal written any other way.
It’s true. We say the most offensive stuff to each other.
Racist. Homophobic. Insulting each other’s mom. Sometimes, every once in awhile, it leads to knock-down-roll-around-on-the-ground fistfights, but mostly we laugh because we don’t mean it. Any one of us would take a bullet for the other.
One of my favorite aspects of the raw realism is SLN is the way in which Travis’ PTSD is integrated into the story. I know that sounds strange, but it’s important, because at no point does SLN devolve into an “issue book,” yet at the Travis’ PTSD is always there, bubbling under the surface, threatening his tenuous grasp on “normal.” For example, while Travis is turtle-watching with Harper [swoon], his brain flips bank to Afghanistan, unable to stop himself from worrying about bombs hidden on the Florida beach,
Harper moves past me and I fight the urge to grab her arm and stop her, momentarily forgetting there are no bombs buried here. In Afghanistan, they could be anywhere. One time we were sweeping a road because we knew there was a bomb on it, but even with a metal detector we couldn’t find it. We gave up, got in the truck, drove a little farther down the road, and hit the bomb we’d been looking for. None of us were hurt—just a little tossed around—but it messed up the truck. Even after my brain gets the memo that we are not going to blow up on Bonita Beach, I can’t stop my eyes from scanning the sand for explosives.
“Is this a problem?” she asks.
For a moment I have to remember what we were talking about, but then I look up at her, the sea breeze lifting the stray hair around her face. “Nope, not a problem at all.”
Even in this quiet moment, his experiences in the war creep into his psyche. Later, during that same night on the beach with Harper, Travis experiences an even more intense flashback when he hears a stick crack. It’s these moments that made real for me what it must be like to be back home, back to normal, for men and women who’ve experienced war.
[Note: I deleted and added the following part of my review multiple times, because I always feel skeevy talking about myself in a book review. But, I believe that our reactions to what we read are deeply rooted in our own experiences, and I don’t mine sharing my own, so in it stays.]
Something Like Normal thrust me back to my own experience, in which for years following 9/11 (I was living in Washington, DC during the terrorist attacks), when I’d hear low-flying airplanes (and even worse, military aircraft like what buzzed over the city for days after 9/11), my hands would start shaking and I’d panic. I’d then have to consciously work to force that panic out of my head, with varying degrees of success. It was the most awful feeling (and, honestly, sometimes still—because I live near an airport—it sneaks up on me when I hear low-flying aircraft).
Even with my relatively mild experience with post-traumatic stress, I feel confident in saying that Doller captured that “flipped switch” feeling masterfully in Something Like Normal. And, frankly, my own experience with panic is nothing—nothing—like what it must be like for people who’ve experienced war, seen friends—the people they’re trying to protect—violently killed and been required to do things they’d never fathomed they’d have to do.
That’s why I think that Something Like Normal is so special.
It brings home to anyone who takes the time to read it, and experience Travis’ “new normal,” something we’ll never experience and does so in a relatable, compelling way. Travis isn’t some remarkable guy (as much as I liked him)—instead, he’s a guy we all know. He’s someone who’s easy to identify with, even if his experiences are far removed from our own. Travis joins the Marines because he doesn’t really know what to do with his life and he discovers that it’s a job that works for him—even though it’s a really, really hard job.
I can think of many, many Travises I grew up with. Some joined the military, some went to community college, some got jobs. Travis could be my neighbor or yours. And yet, where I live (Portland, Oregon, which is very different from the small-town Oregon I’m from), guys like Travis who choose the military as their path are often dismissed, stereotyped and derided with sanctimonious bumper stickers.*
I’d love to put Something Like Normal in the hands of the adults in communities such as the one in which I live so they could understand that the guys (and girls) they lump together as “The Military” are people just like their friends and neighbors. I know this sounds dramatic and overwrought, but SLN really hit me with the uncomfortable feeling that in places like Portland it is common to dehumanize the real Travises with our language, attitude and assumptions.
[Stepping off my high horse now and returning to our regularly-scheduled programming.]
The other element that struck me in Something Like Normal is the sensitive transformation of Travis and his mother’s relationship.
There’s not a lot I can say about what transpires, because to do so would be tremendously spoilerific, but they begin to see one another as individuals, not just in the parent-kid context. Despite my voracious reading of contemporary YA, I don’t see this a whole lot and I’d love to see more YA authors explore this theme.
I don’t know what to say to this. My mom is seeing a therapist? I run my hand over my head. “Hey, um, Mom, I’ve gotta go because we’re having breakfast with Charlie’s mom, but I wanted to tell you—” I don’t remember the last time I said the words. “I, um—” The line is silent for a moment as my mom waits for the words, but then she finishes it for me. “I love you, too, Travis.”
If I had to point to one thing that bothered me about SLN, it’s that I didn’t need the epilogue-like final chapter. By the penultimate chapter, I’d decided for myself what I though was going to happen in Travis’ life, and what direction he was headed. It was nice to see that my assumptions were indeed correct, but my time with Travis could have just as easily ended without revisiting Travis. However, it also brings closure to the Travis-Charlie plot, so it serves an important purpose. So, my feelings remain mixed on that final piece of Travis’ story. Regardless, that minor point in no way diminishes my enthusiastic declaration that Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal is a “must-read” of 2012.
*For real, y’all… the bumper stickers in this town. You have no idea.
Disclosure: I received a copy of SLN from the publisher via NetGalley. Additionally, the author is a friend of a friend (which I was unaware of at the time I read this book). Neither of these facts impacted my my honest review of this book.
A word (well, a lot of words) on the cover design.
I really believe that Bloomsbury did a massive disservice to to this marvelous book by going in the direction it did with this cover. By choosing the typical YA almost-make out cover, it limits SLN’s audience. Teen boys would probably love the hell out of this book, but it looks like a teen romance—and you’d not guess in a bookstore that the narrator is a 19 year-old Marine. It also conveys the impression that the romance is a huge part of the story, and while it’s very important, it isn’t the story. This is Travis’ story of loss and redemption.
Why not create a cover akin to the new U.S. edition of The Piper’s Son?
This cover (while not as awesome as the Australian version) has universal appeal, not limiting its audience like the SLN cover does. It’s on-trend in terms of YA, but it also conveys that there’s a male narrator and wouldn’t be a turn-off to adult readers either.
SLN’s cover really, really bothers me, y’all. Like, probably more than it should a rational person—but I think that points to how much I care about this book. Please don’t let SLN’s completely wrong cover keep you from reading this book. It’s one of my favorites in a long, long time.