Friday, 6 February 2015

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson - Review

I read this book as part of the Waterstones Leeds Teen/YA Book Club (@WSLeedsTeen). Our February book of the month is Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas - feel free to join in and read it with us, and maybe even join us in-store on March 1st for the meeting!

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

First Published: January 2015 (UK)

This Edition Published: January 2015
This Edition Published By: David Fickling Books
Cover Design: Alice Todd; Ness Wood

Type: Young Adult Fiction
Genre(s): Contemporary; Romance; LGBTQIA+
Series: None
Language: English

Format: Hardback
Number of Pages: 370
ISBN: 9781910200322
Price: £10.99


Two boys. Two secrets. 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 Year 11 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...


This is your official SPOILER WARNING! There are lots and lots of spoilers!

As stated at the top of this post, I read this book for the monthly book club that I attend at my local Waterstones branch, Waterstones Leeds. I had heard a little bit about general opinions/ratings beforehand due to seeing Goodreads discussions and whatnot, but overall I had no idea whatsoever about the story, characters and settings of the novel. The only thing I had any clue about was the range of topics - LGBTQIA+ characters, transgender bullying, gender identity and dysphoria... and so on and so forth.

I feel like the most appropriate place to start is at an embarrassing admission: this is the first book I've ever read that really solely focuses on LGBTQIA+ characters. Although I've encountered various other books with characters in that identify within the spectrum (e.g. Joey in Andrew Smith's 'Wingeris gay, and Vaurien Scapegrace in 'Skulduggery Pleasant' by Derek Landy is technically transgender) I've never read a book purely about such characters. The Art of Being Normal has, very effectively, shown me that I've been missing out.

When I first started reading, the perspective was David's/Kate's, and from this I automatically assumed that we would remain looking through her eyes for the entire book, and that Leo was simply someone who she met and thus came into the story. I write 'she/her' to use the accurate pronouns of the desired gender of the character, though I might get mixed up at some point and revert to saying 'he/him' - if I do, forgive me! Keeping this in mind as well, do I write this review calling her David (as she is for most of the book) or Kate, as her desired name is? For the purpose of simplicity I think I'll stick to David, as you guys might get confused otherwise...! I was, of course, very wrong about the book remaining in David's perspective; every few chapters, the perspective would change to Leo. I found this to be a quite unique style of writing as although I've read dual narrative books before too (e.g. Sophie McKenzie's 'Blood Ties'), I'd never read one where it was at random intervals - it was always that at the start of every new chapter, the perspective would change to the other character. This was therefore a refreshing way of writing that took a little bit of getting used to, but was very enjoyable once I had differentiated the two characters. (It was also a tad confusing at first as there were no chapter titles or character names to head the chapters to tell me that the perspective had changed - this is something else that was unlike the dual narrative books I've encountered before, which made it very clear and obvious that the perspective was changing.)

David as a character I found to be very authentic, dealing with the problems and troubles that any transgender teen no doubt encounters. Very anxious at the unwanted changes occurring within and to her body, and envious of those she recognised happening to her younger sister, she documented what she found in order to make sense of the confusion and also to no doubt keep herself sane. I found myself feeling very upset that she didn't feel comfortable and didn't have the confidence to 'come out' yet - such is the nature of our modern society that most LGBTQIA+ people feel so oppressed and scared that they don't dare speak out about their wishes. Indeed, it's shown in the book the risks - that they might be rejected (as Alicia initially does with Leo) or ridiculed (as Harry does publicly to David before Leo intervenes), and I do hope that through books such as this and the slowly changing stereotypes, we may soon be able to change the way society thinks. I was very glad that when David did finally reveal his gender identity, his parents were so understanding and helped him on the way to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and beyond that fully transitioning - but at the same time I did wonder whether this was entirely realistic. For some families of course it would be, but for the majority there is still a very negative reception - perhaps it would have been better to have the bad reaction, as with Leo (to a degree)? That's me just being picky, though.

The trip with Leo I felt to be a very significant part of the book with regard to David, as it is obviously when she attempts to 'pass' as female in the world without the pressure and fear of people recognising her, and also when the two get drunk and bond in the bingo hall. It seemed both cutely realistic and strangely unrealistic at the same time - elements were so, so enjoyable to read (the fact that they took a picture together, and Leo's unwilling but loud karaoke) but at the same time, I was cringing at the thought of the two of them being stupid enough to swim in the ocean when smashed out of their heads and also drinking/gambling underage. All in all, though, it is an accurate depiction of modern teenage life and it ultimately showed that transgender teens are not exempt from 'normal' activities - they are just the same as everyone else, and equal to everyone else.

Leo, although also a main character, seemed to take a more back-seat role for me despite his continued importance and relevance throughout. Williamson did well to write him so ambiguously; had I not accidentally read a spoiler when updating my Goodreads status about where I was in the book one time, I wouldn't have even known that Leo was another transgender character until the big reveal for David in the abandoned swimming baths. Pretending that I didn't already know, this would have been a hugely shocking moment - and I commend the realistic nature of this, as many transgender individuals can easily 'pass' as their true gender. David tries to achieve this and does well, as we also see, but on the downside here I did get a bit of a comical undertone to the writing. I don't know why I found it funny that he dressed in his friends'/relatives' clothes so often, but I did, and perhaps this is a difficulty in writing transgender characters again due to society. Even though I consider myself to be a completely open and accepting individual, society has still shaped me think of the idea of men in women's clothes as being a bit ridiculous and silly (whereas girls in boys' clothes is just a social norm; how hypocritical). Anyway, back to Leo; I did really love his character as a transgender teen, however, I do feel some aspects of his story were a little bit... if I can say it... dull? The plot of the relationship with Alicia, for example, got quite boring even though I understood why it was being explored. I don't think this was down to Leo's characterisation, which I loved throughout as he was very much an individual and against many modern stereotypes - I think it was down to the characterisation of Alicia. Upon her arrival in the book I instantly felt hesitant to like her and very apprehensive and distrusting of her; I knew that she would eventually do something to make me dislike her, and I'm actually disappointed to say she didn't disappoint. (That's a bit of an oxymoronic statement...) When she broke up with Leo over his biological sex, that was obviously it - I thought she was awful and judgmental. The fact that she didn't seem to be happy was little to make up for it, and even at the end of the book I think she was still quite a shallow character. I think the entire book could have survived without her, but the inclusion of a 'romance' aspect to the array of topics was certainly valuable, and I accept that.

Referencing the topic variety - I do think this book covered a lot of valuable bases, in some shape or form, with regard to gender identity and transgender life. I liked how it mentioned different coping methods, stages of transitioning, ways of life etc; it gave an accurate and well thought-out insight into the life of someone who lives knowing they are in the 'wrong body'. However, having had a discussion on Twitter with Levi, another of my book club's members, I realise now that maybe the book didn't go into very much depth - it 'skirted around the edges' almost, not really delving into any one topic in very much detail. Levi also said to me that some of the issues looked at, such as bullying and parenting issues, are applicable to everyone who suffers from them and not just transgender individuals. I do therefore agree with him that perhaps the book could have done more to relate to purely transgender issues, as well as covering what anyone might deem obvious with regard to gender identity and social stigmas. I think if you had to think about this book as a whole, it is more of an 'introduction' to LGBTQIA+ fiction rather than a book which fully explores and dictates life as such an individual - which obviously worked very well for me, as I've never read anything like it before.

The ending of the book with the event in the swimming baths, as organised by Felix and Essie (who I thought were quite irritating as well as unique, I'll be honest, not only due to their moderately cliché hook-up...) was really cute, and again another aspect of the novel which I really loved. It was such a lovely idea to host an alternative ball, and whilst highly improbable that something such as this would ever really happen, it was a great way to seal the book and bid farewell to the refuge which Leo had for himself for so long. It's also quite a creepy thought to think of how dangerous it no doubt would have been in the building since it had been closed down and abandoned, but I'll try not to think about that too much...!

Writing style-wise, I thought that this book was good. Not brilliant or fantastic, but solidly good - easy to read, understand, and interpret. I do think more could have been done to point out the two characters when swapping perspectives - the alternating font type wasn't as dramatic as it should or could have been, and I did find myself getting confused sometimes - but perhaps that was a difficulty only I really faced, and other people were better adjusted to. 

With all things considered, and with things such as the world-building and overarching plot of self-discovery and development included, my rating for this book is four out of five stars. Thoroughly enjoyable and unique, but with little points for improvement here and there. As a debut novel it is exceedingly impressive, and I look forward to seeing what else Lisa Williamson has to offer in the future. I don't know if she has a sequel planned for The Art of Being Normal (it seems to have quite an ambiguous and open ending that could invite one), but if she does, I'll definitely be reading it to see where David (now Kate, no doubt!) and Leo will be taken next.

Thank you for taking the time to read this review, and have a wonderful day!

Rating: 4/5 Stars ★ ★ ★ 

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