Thursday, January 23, 2014

ARC Review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens


Title: Faking Normal

Author: Courtney C. Stevens

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: February 25th, 2014

Lately, I’ve grown very cynical. At least when it comes to Young Adult Contemporary. It’s no secret that I am constantly let down by this genre, my expectations of the reality it will expose shattered by over-used tropes, love triangles, and an ironic dose of the unreal. When Faking Normal fell into my hands, it was with little, or no, expectations at all that I cracked open its spine. Stevens’s debut already seemed a little too familiar; the girl on the cover, the gorgeous font, the too damaged protagonist. And, in many ways, Faking Normal is not a new story. It’s not meant to be, though. Instead, Faking Normal is the novel I’ve wished so many preceding titles could have been and, in my eyes, to finally tell a story the right way, without romanticizing a traumatic situation, is more profoundly moving than anything else.

Sadly, the first thing to stand out to me about Faking Normal is the fact that the main character, Alexi, and her two best friends, Liz and Heather, discuss sex. Extensively. And in a manner that is utterly nonchalant, proving how perfectly normal this occurrence is. For a novel that deals with rape and domestic abuse, it says a lot about this genre that a healthy discussion about sex with girlfriends is what stands out. Needless to say, it’s a rarity in this genre, though it should not be. Stevens never shies away from the plethora of “taboo” topics that girls discuss and, frankly speaking, the friendship between these three girls is refreshing. First and foremost, it is honest and real, never sugar-coating the complex relationships among these teens and, most importantly, treating their hurdles as insignificant. Although Alexi, Liz, and Heather all have their own set of stereotypes associated with them, as the novel wears on and secrets are revealed, it is proven that no one – and especially no one girl – fits the label she is given and that is okay. I find that this is a universal theme that truly needs to be emphasized more often, especially with modern-day media selling girls as one type or another. As the layers to these three friends are slowly peeled back, the raw truth is all the more beautiful as it arrives hand-in-hand with acceptance.

Nevertheless, while friendship is certainly a strong, and prevalent theme, throughout the novel, the bulk of Faking Normal deals with the trauma that Alexi and the boy-next-door, Bodee, have faced. When Bodee’s father murders his mother in a violent situation of domestic abuse, Alexi’s parents invite Bodee to live with them, particularly as Alexi and Bodee’s mother were best friends. While Alexi doesn’t know what to think of the Kool-Aid Kid whose hair is a different color every day, she learns to trust him as he recognizes the scabs on the back of her neck and keeps her secret. Both Alexi and Bodee, however, are unable to own up to the darkness inside of them. For Bodee, turning his father in seems like a no-brainer, but is surprisingly difficult. And for Alexi, even accepting the fact that she was raped this past summer – by someone she knew and trusted, no less – is even harder.

It is evident, throughout the novel, that Alexi is hurting; blaming herself for the rape, feeling an immense amount of guilt, and ultimately hating her perpetrator for stealing her virginity – something that she should have had the choice to give away. With her friends, Liz and Heather, discussing their own sexual encounters and first-times, Alexi cannot help but feel even more dirty and contaminated by her circumstances. In Bodee, however, she finds a true friend. Although Alexi and Bodee never become true confidants until much later in the novel, they help each other cope with their respective traumas. Bodee, for instance, attempts to wean Alexi off of the habit of picking at the skin on her neck just as Alexi tries to help Bodee feel safe enough so that he doesn’t feel the need to do pull-ups underneath the bed.

Stevens writes Faking Normal with such skill and poise that it is difficult to imagine this being only her first novel. Not only is her prose lilting and easy to lose yourself in, but it is sparse when needed and the words capture the raw emotions of these teenagers in a way nothing else possibly can. Although Bodee’s growth and hurt is only briefly touched upon throughout the story arc, we truly manage to delve inside Alexi’s head and heart, feeling her pain and sorrow and loneliness. While Alexi, unlike Bodee, still has her entire family with her, she is close with neither of them, least of all her sister Kayla whose dominating personality has always overshadowed her own. Thus, the relationship that blossoms between Bodee and Alexi, one of trust and friendship, carries so much weight throughout the novel. Moreover, the subtle romance that occurs between the two is understated, but heart-felt. For me, the best part is that the words “I love you” are never uttered – it doesn’t need to be. Faking Normal is so much more a story about the heavy weight and comprehension of complex emotions than the words that make them up, which is beautiful.

Stevens’s debut is a raw, gritty, and often brutal contemporary. None of the relationships in this novel are simple and the path towards healing is constantly a challenge, one step back for every two steps forward. It isn’t a dark, or even heavy read, however. Filled with the bustle of daily high school life, flirty jocks, and even a mysterious desk-writer nicknamed “Captain Lyric,” Faking Normal manages to be wildly entertaining, all while touching upon serious subjects in a poignant manner. I am, rarely, impressed by Contemporary YA, but this novel is worth every penny. I hardly need to say it, but if I do, then pre-order this one at once – it’s going to be a definite favorite this year. I can just tell.

18 comments:

  1. Well, this is a huge relief! I downloaded this one more or less on a whim. You know how I feel about contemporary, but I do like to step out of my comfort zone every once in a while. I love that it's not all dark and heavy, but that there's actual lightness in the story, despite the grim center. And realistically portrayed teens are a definite plus.

    Btw, yaaaay for Flame! I'm reading it too. So far, so great.

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  2. A frank discussion about sex is definitely a rarity in this genre and it's good to hear of a novel that doesn't just put a happy shine on it or make it something it's not. It's sex. People are going to talk about it. Teens NEED to talk about it and not be afraid.

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  3. You know me and gritty contemps. Those are my type of book, and this one sounds like it really excels in that department. I love how very honest this book sounds. Lovely review, Keertana :)

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  4. Finally! I'm so tired of all the YA contemporary books, because I got annoyed by the all the same stories. I'm so glad that this one is taking it to the right road again. I love when things are real. Great review, Keertana :)

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  5. WoW! This sounds fab. A lot to pack into a book, but I'm glad to hear that the author doesn't shy away from the hard topics. I am not quite in the mood for something gritty, but when I am... I really need to pick this one up.

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  6. Oh I already like Alexi and Bodee! I will definitely put this one on pre-order! I got a little tired of contemps last year, but this sounds like one I definitely don't want to miss. Again, you've written a beautiful review, I hope the book lives up to it!

    Heather

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  7. this sounds very different. Do am glad to hear that sex is part of this book, considering it is a topic that I think teenagers these days cannot avoid.

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  8. I'm so glad to hear this isn't another disappointing contemporary that romanticizes trauma. Having friends who don't fit into stereotypes having realistic, frank discussions about sex, that's almost enough of a selling point for me to pick this one up (and I had no plans to do so before reading your lovely review), but I'm also interested to see how the author deals with such heavy topics as murder and rape without descending into darkness. It sounds like she's very skilled, and I'm excited to read this. Thank you for putting it on my radar!

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  9. Sounds like I'm going to have to shore up a bit of courage before I tackle this one Keertana! It seems like a really powerful read though, and I don't want to miss out on something beautiful just because I'm a little worried it will turn me into a giant emotional mess. Absolutely gorgeous review:)

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  10. I'm really jaded with most *issue* YA and NA right now. I'm always looking for a book that handles it right.

    Great review. I'll be adding this to my TBR pile.

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  11. Excited to find another great contempt read, the genre is feeling a bit flooded lately. Will be adding to TBR. Great review :)

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  12. Wow. Ok--I think I need to read this one--what do you think, K? I mean I loved what you said about the refreshing friendship between the three girls--that sounds like a Heather-type of book for sure--but I REALLY love that this somewhat overused storyline (and I know that makes me sound callous--we are talking about domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse) somehow moves beyond the same old, same old that we see again and again in these darker contemporary issue books. I am SO glad to have read this review--because honestly--like you I was just going to pass this one by. Now I think I may need to rethink that.

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  13. Heather, I definitely think you'll enjoy this one! I know how much you love your strong heroines and while this one is more likely to spell "victim", there is plenty of quiet strength to be found within the pages of this book that I know you'll absolutely LOVE. I can't wait to see what you make of this, dear!

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  14. I finally have time to leave a comment on this! I loved your review when I first read it as it got me to completely change my mind about this book. I wasn't sure that it would be my sort of thing, and although issues such as rape and abuse aren't topics that I really find myself ever wanting to read about, Faking Normal sounds completely accessible. I like knowing that it remains entertaining while managing to tackle some deeper themes. I can't wait to give this a try now. Lovely review, keertana! :)

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  15. Okay this is another that I passed right by because I'm getting really tired of these trauma plots that repeat. The THING that happened one night stories. I don't want to belittle anyone's traumatic experiences, but so many books deal with these situations similarly. However, you make this story sound refreshing and more honest than others. I like that friendships are strong and read true. I'm a little nervous about how I'll handle the plot with the boy next door. That kind of freaks me out. But I definitely have this story in my radar now.

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  16. In spite of the heavy topic this sounds like a wonderful story. I read and loved What Happens Next and this somehow reminds me of it. Excellent review, Keertana! :)

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