Something Like Normal is about a Marine deployed in Afghanistan, but Doller manages to avoid any preaching on the war itself, either negative or in endorsement. This book isn't about the political side of the war; it's about the emotions. Told from Travis' perspective, Something Like Normal is not intended to capture the truth of the war as a whole, but merely to highlight its effect on one person.
In the opening scene, Travis has just arrived home on leave, a mandated, extended leave to allow him to deal with his problems dealing with his best friend's death. Travis is not the kind of guy that I like in real life, and he's not the typical YA hero. He's flawed, even a bit of an asshole. His gut instinct is to violence, he makes too many decisions with his dick, and he doesn't recognize that his mother is just as trapped in their family as he is. I mean, if you told me that I would read a book and sympathize with a guy who hooked up with his ex-girlfriend (now his brother's girlfriend) while flirting with a wonderful girl, then I would have told you that you were insane.
Still, that's precisely what happened. Something about the writing really made everything feel so real. I got completely sucked into Travis' narration. Despite my disgust for his behavior much of the time, I couldn't help being right there with him. The writing is not ornate, not the typical style I most appreciate, but it fits Travis perfectly: blunt, slightly crude, occasionally funny, and fairly intelligent. The other aspect of the writing that made this work was how reserved, distant, and cold Travis' narration felt most of the time, the exceptions being time spent with Harper or with his marine buddies when you can feel him come alive.
Harper. I have to talk about her. I just love her, even if she made choices I never would have made. She's a completely wonderful girl, and Travis doesn't deserve her. I think she knows that, but she's been in love with him for ages and she's going to get what she wants, just like she'll find a way to pay her way through college. She is such a caring soul, shown both in her treatment of her father and of Travis. Though she may lash out initially, she always ends up doing the right thing. I have so much respect for her as a character.
Another amazing character that I really have to talk about is Travis' mom. Rarely will you see a parent lauded in a YA book review, but I really liked her. She's so completely a mom all the way through, with the care packages, the smothering hug on arrival, the clothing she chose for him, and her projects to try to help out her son's cause. At first, she seems a weak character, controlled by her jerk of a husband, but there's so much more to her. I loved watching her and Travis learn to support and understand one another, brought together through the magic of beer. In fact, the quote I chose for this book is one that struck a chord with me, because it's so like my own relationship with my mother.
There is just so much life in this novel. Part of that stems from the fact that nothing has been romanticized. Doller isn't trying to show the great American hero; she's trying to show a teenager forced to grow up much too fast and coming apart at the seems. The teens in this novel certainly do things that some parents will not want their precious snowflakes to read, but everything feels authentic. It made me cry, it made me angry, it gave me hope, it made me think, and it made me laugh, all many times over.
Despite the hype (I've yet to see a review of this that isn't a rave), I was in no way let down with this novel. Skeptics, have no fear of the subject matter, Something Like Normal is a book you'll want to read. I was scarcely able to put it down, and, when I did, I was immediately sucked back into its emotional vortex the moment I resumed reading.