The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date: May 31, 2016
Original UK publication: January, 2015
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
David Piper has always been an outsider. His parents think he’s gay. The school bully thinks he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the real truth: David wants to be a girl.
On the first day at his new school Leo Denton has one goal: to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in his class is definitely not part of that plan.
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 , and soon everyone knows that Leo used to be a girl.
As David prepares to come out to his family and transition into life as a girl and Leo wrestles with figuring out how to deal with people who try to define him through his history, they find in each other the friendship and support they need to navigate life as transgender teens as well as the courage to decide for themselves what normal really means.
I am using both characters’ chosen names in this review, even though the summary refers to one of them by their birth name. I don’t feel like this is a spoiler, but you should stop reading after the first two paragraphs if you want to remain 100% spoiler-free.
I have a lot of feelings about this book, and I’m struggling to translate them into words and sentences that make sense. I just finished reading this book straight through in one sitting; normally I wait a day or two after reading to get my thoughts in order, but this book inspired a lot of thought while reading and I don’t want to forget it.
Young adult books for LGBTQ+ teenagers are not as common as I would like, but more and more appear each year. But while most books with transgender teen protagonists feature just one aspect (MTF or FTM), The Art of Being Normal shows both a trans boy and a trans girl as they meet and slowly become friends against the ugly and brutal backdrop of a posh British high school.
So that’s where I’ll start. I loved seeing two sides in this novel. Two characters, two distinct voices, two youths from very different backgrounds. Leo and Kate (referred to by herself and others throughout the novel by her birth name) are incredibly well-written; they both read like teenagers, but without the dumbing-down that I feel a lot of YA novels push on their readers.
I was very impressed by the story itself. While part of it was predictable, there were still enough twists to keep things fresh. No one is quite as they seem, and that seems very fitting for this novel. The good guys aren’t always good, and the villains are actually heroes in their own right. Every character was complex, which made the novel more lush and gorgeous to sink into.
There were a few times when I felt like something was slightly off. I’m not sure that I can place exactly why… certain reactions, certain phrasings. It made me feel like the author wrote this book because transgender is a buzz word right now. It’s more obvious in the original summary on Goodreads, which starts off with the words “Two boys. Two secrets.” and the way the novel talks repeatedly about how Kate “wants to be a girl”. I am not transgender, so I don’t feel right taking offense to that– if there is any reason to take offense– but it did catch my attention as a reader.
Overall, though, this book was immensely enjoyable. It’s well written, the plot was intriguing, the pace excellent, and the characters incredible relatable. I hope this is a book that appears in many school libraries someday soon!
Lisa spent most of her childhood drawing, daydreaming and making up stories in her head (but never getting round to writing them down). As a teenager she was bitten by the acting bug and at 19 moved to London to study drama at university.
Following graduation, Lisa spent several happy and chaotic years occasionally getting paid to pretend to be other people. Between acting roles she worked as an office temp and started making up stories all over again, only this time she had a go at writing them down.
Lisa lives near Hampstead Heath with her boyfriend Matt, where she is lucky enough to split her time between writing and acting. In her spare time she reads a lot of books, continues to daydream and eats way too much ice cream.
You can find Lisa on her website at http://www.lisawilliamsonauthor.com/
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.