I reserve a caveat for my criticisms at the start of this review by stating that my life, fortunately, has not been touched by the war that so many have felt on a personal front for the past decade. I’ve not known anyone who has gone overseas to serve, and so I have no firsthand knowledge of the effects that it can have on a person. My reference points are only the impressions that I’ve gleamed from media and books, and so I acknowledge that they’re incomplete.
Still, I can’t help but feel that Something Like Normal is rather a cliché of the effects
that war takes on those involved. Doller’s story recounts the return home of a young man who has just experienced his first seven months of deployment in Afghanistan. His struggles to acclimate himself to the life he left behind involve reflection on the shallow cad he used to be, which wasn’t particularly overplayed, yet which didn’t get me off on a great foot with Travis as a sympathetic protagonist. None of his past offenses were particularly grievous, and I’m sure that promiscuity and insensitivity run rampant among many a male population at that age, so I should have appreciated his frank admissions. Likewise, Travis’s slow realization that he is, in fact, changing for the better into a good man was the right route to take. His self-denial wasn’t gratuitous angst, but rather reflected the confusion through which he viewed his own life. While I didn’t particularly enjoy Doller’s take on the male voice, it nonetheless rang true.
Unfortunately, where Travis offered much opportunity for character analysis, Doller didn’t really deliver, nor did she make up for it with her plot. In the aftermath of his first time in war, Travis experiences ghostly hallucinations, guilt, and PTSD which, though I’m sure are common in these circumstances, didn’t make for an innovative read. I’ve seen this story before, and while I’m no less sympathetic for the real-life people who similarly suffer, I still hope for a measure of the unexpected in my reading, and I didn’t find it here. The one aspect of the story that felt new was Travis’s evolving relationship with his mother. I don’t often come across stories that focus on a man’s relationship with his mom to any degree beyond the acknowledgment of affection, let alone in young adult literature, so seeing Travis forge ties of loyalty and friendship with his mom was refreshing.
Ultimately, the story is rife with what-ifs. What if Travis had owned up to his mistake with Paige rather than be merely a passive player in the action? What if Travis and Harper had had adequate time to get reacquainted with each other; would Harper’s eventual forgiveness have felt more believable? What if Travis had spent a bit more time overseas before ending his narrative; would readers have been able to witness the change that seemed to be brewing within him? I understand why Doller wrote her novel the way she did; men, as a rule, are not forthcoming with their feelings, especially those with Travis’s temperament. To infuse his narrative with emotions would seem disingenuous and would undermine the otherwise realistic portrayal of a young man’s thought process. Yet the result is ultimately an outline of a story rather than the fleshed-out product thereof.