Semper Fi: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
The upcoming influx of books related to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan serves as a powerful reminder of just how slow publishing works. Current events and ripped from the headlines stories rarely need to fear coming out too close to an event, it seems, since it can take years to catch up. I’m extremely excited about books like Something Like Normal, Personal Effects, This is Not a Drill, While He Was Away, If I Lie, In Honor, and more. I don’t think that these stories–the stories of our soldiers, our boyfriends, girlfriends, brothers, sisters, and friends–will be any less relevant or powerful because of the delay, but nonetheless I can’t help but wish that YA had had more of them even sooner.
Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal is particularly compelling to me because it is told not from the perspective of those left behind, but from the point of view of a 19-year-old Marine himself. It’s no secret that many of the troops sent off to fight are 18 and 19, fresh out of high school, but it is a perspective I rarely encounter in fiction.
Travis’ life has consisted of sleeping on the ground, eating nothing but MREs, never getting clean, constant fear, and seeing friends, fellow Marines, and innocent citizens die. When he returns home on leave, there’s a soft bed, home cooked meals, shower, and no major physical threats.
But life back at home is not all rainbows and roses. Travis is welcomed by an unsupportive father who lost interest in his son when Travis gave up on football, an entitled younger brother who stole Travis’ car and girlfriend, and a doting mother whose personal mission to perform charity work and keep her son well-stocked with care packages has driven everyone else in the family away. Furthermore, there’s nothing a filling meal and a shower can do for Travis’ hallucinations and nightmares. Knowing he is unlikely to get shot in a movie theater does not take away Travis’ natural fear and instincts when gunshots ring out.
No matter how tough life at home may feel, and no matter how little it seems anybody else understands what Travis has been through, Travis has no choice but to stay home for a month. His extended leave isn’t exactly voluntary. The death of Travis’ best friend Charlie shook him to the core. Before he can return to his work and his brotherhood, Travis has to face Charlie’s death and its psychological repercussions.
But Travis doesn’t have to do it completely alone.
Travis reconnects with several former classmates, including Harper, whose adolescent life was hellish because Travis allowed everyone to believe that she slept with him. If Harper can forgive Travis for his early teenage transgressions, she might be exactly what he needs.
Something Like Normal is a book about healing, learning to accept help from the people who love you, and moving on in the absence of those you’ve been forced to leave behind. While the journey has plenty of memorable plot points (the turtle conservation date and the diner bet among my personal favorites), the story is largely interior. It is Travis himself who makes Something Like Normal so unforgettable.
The narrator of Doller’s debut is an engaging, flawed, but ultimately incredibly loveable narrator. He is the kind of guy whose loyalty and honor will attract many readers, while his one-step forward, two-steps backward attempt to get the girl will be relatable to others. Harper, too, is the sort of girl you want to befriend. She’s got her shit together, she doesn’t take crap from anyone, and the girl knows her way around a fishing pole (which is not a euphemism–though the book has its spicier moments).
For a relatively slim novel, Something Like Normal is emotionally packed with love, loss, and redemption. As with many of my favorite contemps, Doller’s ability to make the reader feel such a wide variety of emotions at once creates the realism of a life that is painful and imperfect, yet full of passion and warmth, a life that will never quite be normal, but can perhaps be something like it. And maybe that’s good enough.