Courtney C. Stevens’ debut novel “Faking Normal” takes on some tough issues. It opens at the funeral for a neighbor who has been killed by her own husband. The dead woman’s teenaged son, Bodee, is a bit of an oddball and outcast already– a boy who dyes his hair with KoolAid and keeps to himself. After the tragedy, he is taken in by Alexi’s family to live with them for a while, and is the only one who notices that Lexi has a dark secret of her own. She’s been “faking normal” and has convinced her two close friends, Liz and Heather, her parents, and everyone else around her that she’s living the life of a normal high school teen. But Lexi is not doing such a good job in suppressing her internal demons, and has turned to hiding in her closet at night and tearing at the back of her neck until it bleeds. Stevens keeps the reader guessing as to the specifics of Lexi’s incident, but it is clear that it involves some form of sexual abuse. Bodee, mature beyond his years, supports her until she seems stronger and then presses her to make a full disclosure. In turn, Lexi is pressuring him to swear out a disposition against his father. It is a lovely story of the two teens growing closer, the mis-steps they take along the paths of high school dating, break-ups, drinking, and other pitfalls. Lexi, in love with an imagined boy who leaves song lyrics on her desk, almost misses the real flesh-and-blood boy right in front of her. If I were to find fault with the novel, it is in the portrayal of the minor characters around Lexi and Bodee: the girlfriends Liz and Heather are not fleshed-out individuals and the football player boyfriends are somewhat cartoonish stereotypes. Stevens certainly has writing skills and could have made them more fully formed. Also, Bodee speaks at times with the voice of a wise sage years older than his teens, which jars at times, but he is such a sympathetic and lovable character, it is forgiven. One thing I must applaud Stevens for is her bravery in including references to God and religion in a Young Adult work. The mother attends a prayer meeting, the kids have attended church school, and there is a definite thread of a religious nature throughout. The author also in the back of the book has provided a special message to any boy or girl who has suffered rape or abuse, telling them it is never their fault, they can find help to a normal life again, and they must learn to trust again. It is a beautiful, honest and brave footnote to the book. Thank-you, Courtney.
Monthly Archives: May 2014
Just finished Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Full disclosure up front: I’m a fan of her work and have followed her writing for years, gone to hear her speak when possible, and have been influenced by her style in my own writing. Now to the book: It is a simple story of a boy and girl who fall in love against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in 1911 New York City. The boy is a young man who has made a living finding people who don’t want to be found–for a price, and the girl’s father displays her in a tank of water, painted blue and dressed like a mermaid, in his museum to make money. Wrap these characters in the world of New York’s Dreamland–a fantastic amusement park–and surround them by “living wonders”–the freaks who work in the museum, and you get the makings of a story perhaps only Hoffman could have written. It starts with her delicious prose describing individually the lives of the girl, Coralie Sardie, growing up isolated in this strange museum, and the boy, Eddie Cohen, alienated from his deeply religious father and Jewish roots, who wonders the streets of New York capturing images on film. These two characters are like electrical currents who eventually cross paths. When they do (and not until approximately 200 pages into the work), this reader mentally sat up and took notice. When their lives cross, it is in conjunction with a body found by the edge of the river, and there’s nothing that gets the mystery reader’s heart racing more than a mysterious dead body. Now, here I must point out that if Alice Hoffman were the type of writer who followed the pack of “commercially successful” writers, she would have opened the story with the scene by the river and the discovery of the body–boom–right on the first pages to hook the reader. Not so Ms Hoffman who can still captivate with her prose and descriptions, her character development and her style. Just flipping through the pages, a reader is struck by the long blocks of unbroken text. It looks more like a classic than a contemporary novel. More often these days each chapter is short, the sentences are rarely longer than two lines, and the prose is broken up by dialog quite often. Hoffman also weaves themes through the work which must be set up and carefully revealed. In Museum, she artfully returns to the leitmotif of fish/mermaids and water throughout the work, interposed with the idea of the captive wife in Jane Eyre and the living embodiment of a prisoner in the character of the wolfman, Mr. Morris, and Coralie herself. And lastly, a lost locket and a stolen watch switch positions, playing at the roles of the lost and the found in their human counter-parts. If I had to find fault with the novel I would (lightly) criticize the character of the coachman who, at times, came off as far too philosophical and educated for his circumstances and almost seemed to be a thinly-veiled mouthpiece for Hoffman herself. Also, I found that the ending seemed rushed, things fell into place a bit too conveniently, but all in all in a satisfying way. In the end, I have to conclude that we need more–much more–of Hoffman’s kind of writing.