What: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson
Who: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
When: May 31st 2016
How: A copy of this novel was provided by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for review via Net Galley.
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.
The Art of Being Normal is about two trans characters, both of which have their own point of view. I’m not trans, so my thoughts on this book are not anywhere near as valuable as those with lived experience, so I definitely recommend reading thoughts from trans reviewers. So, my cis thoughts on this book are as follows:
1) I really didn’t like the constant misgendering and use of the name David when Kate chose the name Kate for herself. The book’s blurb, and reviewers are doing this and it makes me really uncomfortable. David is not the character’s preferred name – it’s Kate. And Kate’s pronouns are female, not male. So to have Kate constantly misgendered, and her own chapters titled “David” made me squirm, because I feel like there was no respect for Kate in terms of her name or pronouns.
Even Leo misgendered Kate and called her David all the time, which I found kind all kinds of problematic, for reasons you might understand in the next point.
2) Leo, the second main character, is also trans, which I loved. A book with two trans characters front and centre was amazing. And the fact that they were there for each other was really nice to read about (although like I said a moment ago, Leo’s misgendering and use of David when talking to and referring to Kate irked me).
Leo, on the whole, was a character I really liked. There were some cliché teenage moments on his behalf, but it was kind of forgivable because he is a teenager. His storyline is mainly centred on his romantic relationship with a girl at his new school, Alicia, and his relationship with his parents.
Leo’s mum was kind of written off as a dead-beat one who didn’t really care about Leo. Yes, most of the time she seemed to not give a crap about Leo, but she was also accepting of him (and it was revealed that she was in his corner all long later in the story). I feel like there could have been a lot more development of their relationship together. Leo’s father, on the other hand, has been absent since Leo’s birth, and Leo has a dream that if he finds his dad, everything will turn out okay. Pro tip: finding dads who don’t want you never turns out well, and the interaction between Leo and his dad broke my heart. (I wanted to pulverise the fucking bastard.)
3) I wanted more from Kate. I really felt like I got to know Leo so much more than I got to know Kate. I wanted to know her beyond her brief encounters with her friends and family, and her support of Leo. I wanted to see someone supporting her. Not just accepting her like her friends did, but talking to her and letting her speak her mind and vent and talk about what she was feeling. I don’t really feel like that ever got to happen. Towards the end there was more of a focus on this, but it was almost too little too late. I really liked Kate, and I felt like there was just so much more to her that we didn’t really get to see.
4) Gender was presented as quite black and white in The Art of Being Normal. For example, Kate knew she was trans because she liked toys targeted towards girls, and Leo knew because he liked toys targeted towards boys. Whilst this obviously can be the case, gender was presented in this novel as strictly female or male, and feminine or masculine, which left little discussion for gender identities that don’t strictly fit to either end of those spectrums, and left being trans defined as either ‘I was assigned female at birth and identify as male’, or ‘I was assigned male at birth and identify as female’.
5) I liked the ending. I liked that it wasn’t tragic (although there were elements before the end that were quite sad). I liked that there was happiness and hope for both Leo and Kate. I think we need more trans books that have a happy ending, so I was completely on board for this.
Overall, I did like The Art of Being Normal, although I felt like some things weren’t presented as well as they could have been. If you’re looking for your first book about a trans character, or you simply devour any and all LGBTQIA+ books, then I would still say give The Art of Being Normal a go.
© 2016, Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity. All rights reserved.