The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson Review 3/5

Overall Impression: An amazing step forward in diversity in publishing, not such a step forward in engrossing storytelling.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa WilliamsonAs both a reader and a psychology student, I’m always on the lookout for YA books that tackle serious topics and incorporate them into stories, whether that’s mental health, rare disorders or, in this case, gender identity. As a student, I was lucky enough to cover gender as a topic and it really opened my eyes, so I was excited to discover a novel about a transgender teen was being published this year! I couldn’t wait to see how such a complex topic would be handled, especially as it’s something people find hard to understand. This novel is groundbreaking in so many ways, and yet, unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much as I was hoping to and found myself disappointed on multiple levels.

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 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…

Like many books being released lately, The Art of Being Normal uses a dual narrative technique, switching between the point of views of David and Leo. It reminded me a lot of Non Pratt’s novel, Trouble in the sense that the point of view switches were snappy and seamless and both voices felt unique. I have to say I preferred Leo’s voice to David’s which was a bit of an issue for me, and there was nothing particularly unique or memorable about Williamson’s writing style for me to grab on to, but despite this, I still found myself consuming this novel at a rapid pace and finished it in just three days!

I really liked how the plot of The Art of Being Normal explored what it would be like to be transgender and the issues involved. David is sure that he wants to be a girl and has known this since he was 8. He religiously keeps track of his body changing in a notebook, experiencing mounting dismay each time he goes up a shoe size or becomes taller. To him, these are signs that his body is betraying him, puberty is turning him into something he does not want to be, yet he cannot bring himself to tell his parents to do something about it. To resent and hate your own body, to be constantly acting out a role when you don’t know your lines and the battle of trying to be ‘normal’ vs accepting who you truly are must be such a difficult thing to deal with. How do you find a romantic partner that accepts you? How do you avoid being bullied by peers? How do you go about living your life in a way that makes you feel happy? Yet while I was impressed by Williamson’s discussion of this topic, I couldn’t help but want more. I guess I was hoping this novel would go into some of the darker and more serious issues such as the mental health problems (like increased depression and suicide rates) and extreme prejudice transgender people face. While there were a few scenes involving bullying, none of these emotionally impacted me or led me to feel horrified, and in general events seemed to go a bit too smoothly.

I also felt the plot of The Art of Being Normal was thin. Despite what I’ve said above about wanting this novel to delve into transgender issues further, it was also important for me that this book was able to stand in its own right, that it would be a good story with diverse characters and important issues as a bonus, and I don’t think Williamson achieved this although she tries really hard. For the first half of this novel, barely anything happened, except David talking about being transgender while Leo the mysterious new boy in school crushed on a girl, and I’ll be honest, I was bored. Then the second half of the book added in a random left-field The Fault in Our Stars type road trip mission to search for Leo’s estranged father, which felt forced to me, as if it had been stuck in because the book needed a point of conflict. I was always expecting this novel to be a character driven with David and Leo’s friendship acting as the glue that held the book together, but unfortunately even this fell short for me and I never warmed to their friendship, making the lack of plot all the more apparent.

Even with the average writing and the oddly paced plot, this wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I had really connected to or become invested in the characters. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen either. I quite liked Leo and how much of an enigma he was, as one of the only students at Eden Park School from the bad part of town, with a dysfunctional family and some serious anger management issues, he had a sort of appealing roguish personality and his mysterious past drew me it. The other main protagonist David, however, felt flat, unmemorable and passive and didn’t exude any kind of personality at all which was frustrating, because he was the main reason I picked up the book! I feel like apart from being transgender, I learnt absolutely nothing about David except for one vague allusion to him liking fashion, and subsequently, he felt one dimensional and I didn’t warm to his character. The secondary characters didn’t really leap off the page either, and I wish we could have heard more of Alicia, Felix and Essie’s reactions to ongoing events.

Overall, although the characters, writing and plot of The Art of Being Normal were distinctly average for me, I did enjoy this novel overall and whizzed through it quickly, and I still want to champion this novel for its diversity and bravery for breaking the mold. I really hope more books like this will be published in the future! I feel like a bit of a strange weirdo person for not loving this as much as everyone else has because I seem to be the odd one out with my rating *goes and sits in corner with own views*. So even though I didn’t like this novel that much, it’s highly likely you still might and it could be worth checking out some other reviews! I recommend this books to those 12+ who enjoy books that explore friendships, bullying and gender identity.

Writing Style: 3/5
Originality: 5/5
Entertainment: 3/5
Character Development: 3/5
Would I recommend this book? I’m on the fence.

Overall: 3/5

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15 thoughts on “The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson Review 3/5

  1. Trying to write a review for a 3/5 book is the hardest. You can neither wax lyrical about it nor slag it off for a laugh.

    Fair play to the author for having a bash at this subject matter though.

    • Middling books are definitely tough to review, especially as they’re normally ones that have SO MUCH potential but have other aspects that have frustrated me that are hard to overlook.

      Yes, agreed, props to Lisa Williamson for putting a spotlight on people that are usually omitted from books!

  2. Kudos to the author for trying this one out, as Mr Cargill said. Sounds like a fascinating angle for a story…but it also sounds like Williamson didn’t quite know what to do with it.

    • Agreed! I really wish I could have given this one a higher rating, I really wanted to because of the subject matter and was hoping I would be able to recommend it with lots of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, awesome concepts/inclusion of an important topic doesn’t automatically = a 5 star rating sadly. You’ve summed it up well, she knew she wanted to write about it but didn’t quite know where to go with it!

      If you think it sounds fascinating it might still be worth giving a go, you might enjoy it even though I didn’t. 🙂

  3. Great review! Never feel strange when you don’t like a book as much as everyone else, that’s the bad thing about hype. It is so great to see differing opinions from: “this is such an incredible book” and such.

    • Thanks, Josephine! A lot of the time having a different opinion on a book doesn’t really bother me, but there are the occasional ones like this (and The Fault in Our Stars for instance) where the reviews are so polarised I wonder if I am somehow missing something, haha.

      You are so right, the hype monster is a dangerous creature! And it is always interesting to read varied reviews of a book. 🙂

  4. Becky, thank you for your thoughtful review. I agree that while it is nice that more authors are tackling issues of diversity and “controversial” topics, I do think that that means they need to step up their games in terms of character development and/or plot – just because someone writes a story about depression, gender identity, etc. does not necessarily make the book amazing already. Glad that you were able to recognize the pros and cons as you felt fit.

    • Thank you, Thomas. 🙂 I was really torn with this book because I wanted to love it, but it didn’t work on multiple levels for me – even simple things like underage 14yr old teens getting served easily in pubs when that would just never happen (I still get ID’d and I’m 21 and you only have to be 18 in the UK where this book was set). It was lots of little things that added up that suggested the plot wasn’t well enough thought out to me. But there were some great aspects as well – specifically Leo’s character and I’m sure many other people will love this book, especially if they don’t know anything about the basics of how being transgender works. I’m glad you understand what I was getting at because diverse books are so, so important!

  5. Oh this is a shame. Such an interesting idea that could have had so much potential! Sometimes because the topic is so complex it seems like authors don’t really know how to handle it, so they end up diluting their overall message. Hopefully more books with this kind of theme will be written in the coming years because it’s so important that stories reflect life.

    Brilliant post! You write reviews for middling books exceptionally well 😉

    • Yes exactly, I feel like this was slightly the case here, the author knew she wanted to write about the subject, but the whole thing felt a bit confused/messy and just didn’t work for me in a lot of places. I agree, I really hope more books like this will come along, it’s about time!

      Why thank you muchly. 🙂

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