Lisa Williamson’s wonderful “The Art of Being Normal” explores the complicated and emotional coming-of-age of two English teenagers. David Piper wants to be a girl. Leo Denton has secrets of his own. The novel switches back and forth between the two characters’ points of view. Both characters are vulnerable and matter-of-fact in tone and diction and their voices capture the weight of their teenage worlds, but David is the more cheerful of the two while Leo is much more emotionally withdrawn and angry. Their family lives are very different: Leo is from a lower class and fights with his irresponsible mother while missing his father who left when he was a baby, and David is from a higher class with two doting, loving parents who think they know what’s going on with him, but have the details all wrong. Leo has two sisters who adore him, while David’s younger sister can’t quite figure him out. I found these family dynamics to be one of the highlights of the book.
They meet when Leo starts attending David’s school. School is rough, and David and Leo spend much of the book dealing with bullies; the unfairness of teachers, administrators, and parents; and their own emotional landscapes. These scenes are often tense and upsetting, but there is also a lot of humor and young romance, including Leo’s blossoming relationship with Alicia Baker, a girl who sees right through his apathy. A climatic road trip contains some of the best scenes between David and Leo, and also some of the most emotional moments. Starting about half way through the book I was in almost constant tears as revelations and obstacles escalate and the two characters try to overcome them. While I’m a little cynical about how their story arcs conclude, these are still very satisfying and soaring conclusions.
Williamson uses a matter-of-fact tone, straight-forward structure, and limited lyricism to prevent the often very emotional content from becoming melodramatic or sentimental. The style is very naturalist and frequently emotionally raw. David and Leo are not characters given to overwrought language, and this helps suggest how they are prepared to deal with what life throws at them. My heart often broke for David and Leo, and I could not help rooting for them to find happiness and acceptance.