September 28, 2012

Something Like Normal: A Psychtember Review

Patient: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Presentation (from Goodreads): "When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother’s stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It’s not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he’s had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again. Travis’s dry sense of humor, and incredible sense of honor, make him an irresistible and eminently lovable hero."

Axis 1. Characters

The characterization in Something Like Normal is wonderful. Travis has one of the most authentic and yet still appealing guy voices I've read in quite a while — and this is coming from someone who doesn't typically like 1st-person teen guy POVs. It's difficult for me to find books with a male teen narrator where I'm interested in what they're saying and can connect to them on some level, and I feel like Trish Doller really accomplished that with Travis. He's a flawed character, to be sure; his behaviour's less than ethical at times, he shows spurts of temper, and though he recognizes he has some psychological issues, he's not quite ready yet to take the step of admitting he needs help. And yet despite these flaws, there's something very attractive about him. I like his honesty, and the way he doesn't take flack from people. 

I feel like he wants to be a better person, and he realizes that he's a better person when he's around Harper, so he wants to be with her. It's neat that we get to be inside Travis' head and see him starting to fall for Harper and care about someone in a way he hasn't before. As for Harper, I appreciated that she stood up for herself and didn't let him walk over her. I think they're good for each other — Travis is pretty bitter and jaded at the beginning, and as Harper softens him up he starts to become more hopeful. She seems like a steady girl who will keep him grounded. Paige provides a nice foil for Harper, since Travis feels very differently about each of them.

Travis' dad is a very generic, "All American" sports dude. He doesn't ever really venture out of cliche, but he's obviously intended to be disliked — and he certainly succeeds at serving that purpose. Basically, he's one of those really irritating dads who want to live vicariously through their kid, and want to see their kid do well so they can be hotshots. He reminded me a lot of the jock's dad in The Breakfast Club, who's pressuring his son all the time. In short, he's a jerk.

In contrast, Travis' mom actually cares about her son, and it's really sweet to see that. I like that he's standing up for his mom, and that they're getting to know each other better after so many years of her sitting on the sidelines while his dad railed at him. 

It's clear that Travis had a strong connection with Charlie (a fellow Marine and friend who was killed) and that their friendship was very important to him. We don't see that kind of emotional bond very often with male characters (at least, not in YA), so it was refreshing to see that level of connection here.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

There isn't much action happening here, but it's quite short and surprisingly readable — I breezed through it in just a couple of days. It could have been a little more dramatic in places (for instance, the PTSD could have been amped up) and I wish a few of the storylines had been more fleshed out. I never felt like we had a good grip on Travis' relationship with his brother Ryan, so I would have liked to have seen more of that (Ryan just seems to get dropped out of the story after a certain scene). More information about the political side of things in Afghanistan would also have been interesting, although obviously that isn't the point of this book. Rather, it's all about Travis' recovery and his emotional healing process, and that is done really well.

In terms of the ending, things wrapped up awfully fast, with a lot being resolved within just the last few chapters, and I think it could have been stretched out a bit more. It seemed too neat and easy a conclusion, with a couple of "heart-to-heart" conversations that dipped into cheesy/sappy. The closing letter was a nice touch, though. While the ending is hopeful, it left me feeling sad in some ways, too. Overall, it's a kind of bittersweet book, not entirely uplifting — Charlie's dead at the beginning and so obviously he's still dead at the end. I was glad that Travis winds up in a better place emotionally, though.

Axis 3. Writing Style

Trish Doller's ear for the male teen voice is impressive. A lot of female authors writing YA novels with male perspectives don't succeed at this aspect, but the way Travis talks and thinks seems quite "guy-like". Most of the dialogue is authentic, and Doller does not shy away from coarse language/references and distasteful jokes in some situations (for example, when Travis is hanging out with his Marine pals). While crude conversation isn't something I really enjoy, I can appreciate that it feels real.
Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

Travis' main psychological problem is quite obvious: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He displays some of the classic symptoms, such as nightmares/difficulty sleeping, startling easily (gunshots set him off), flashbacks, and a dislike of talking about his time spent in Afghanistan. These symptoms fit quite neatly with the DSM-IV criteria

In addition to these, he exhibits signs of psychosis in the form of hallucinations — usually of Charlie. Apparently it's not unusual to experience psychotic symptoms along with PTSD, so this is also in line with research on trauma. 

It's interesting that we're shown a little of how another soldier has reacted differently. Kevlar turns to alcohol and thrill-seeking; he wants an adrenaline rush all the time, the kind that he got in Afghanistan and doesn't get anymore. Adrenaline seems to act similarly to an addictive substance for some individuals. I suspect these are also signs of PTSD — indeed, the upcoming DSM-V has added "reckless or self-destructive behavior" to the list. 

I would have liked to have seen the stigma of mental health issues, especially in the military, discussed a little more. It's touched on slightly (in particular, Travis states, "The evaluation is also supposed to gauge our mental wellness, but that's a joke. We say everything is okay because the fastest way to wreck your career is to admit it's not.") but not addressed in detail. I also wish we'd gotten a glimpse of Travis' therapy, but it's just mentioned at the very end in passing.
Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Something Like Normal?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I liked that it's not too preachy, and that the author isn't taking a strong political stand here. As I mentioned earlier, politics don't play a big role, but when they do surface they aren't handled in a black-and-white kind of way. 

A couple of the blurbs on the back of the book use the word "unflinching," which makes it sound like it could be gritty and violent. It's emotionally tough and depressing, definitely, and feels like this is something that someone who's come back from Afghanistan would experience, but there's nothing really graphic in here at all. In fact, I think the "grit" factor could even have been raised a bit more (although I wouldn't want it to degenerate into gratuitous violence).
Patient shares symptoms with: BADD by Tim Tharp, The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt, Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick

Patient's statement:

I lift my beer cup for a drink. Dirt fills the lines of my hand, and my fingers are stained with blood. The cup slips from my grasp, splashing beer across the top of the table. Paige jumps off Ryan's lap, shrieking something at me, but I don't understand what she's saying. My chest is tight and I'm having trouble breathing.

I have to get out of here.
Diagnosis: 4 shooting stars. This is definitely a good book to check out if you're interested in PTSD or soldiers' reactions to war, or if you're looking for a distinctive and sympathetic male teen narrator. It doesn't bring anything really novel to the subjects of war and trauma, but it excels in characterization and relationships.

This book counts towards my goals for the Debut Author challenge, the Just Contemporary challenge and the New Adult reading challenge.

Note: This book contains some coarse language/references and sexual content. 

Also, I interviewed Trish Doller earlier this month

For more information about PTSD, see here.

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