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.
Stunning. That is the only word I can use to describe Something Like Normal. This is not a story about war; not in the traditional sense, anyway. It’s about the internal war within. It’s about humor, love, and hope, and how all three of these things can help you heal from even the deepest wounds.
What did I love most about Something Like Normal? The authenticity of Travis Stephenson, the main character. It is rare that YA novels feature a male narrator/main character, and when they do, some come off as incredibly stilted. That is not true here. Travis’ voice comes through loud and clear and genuine. I admit, I fell head-over-heels in love with him, and it’s not because he was some idealized picture of perfection. In fact, Travis was far from perfect, which was refreshing.
On top of the fresh emotional and mental scars that Travis carries home from war, there are older scars that are torn open when he is reunited with his family. His father is such a jerk! I don’t understand how a parent could treat their own child that way – or how a husband could be so insensitive to his wife. It’s no wonder Ryan, Travis’ brother, turned out the way he did. I adored Mrs. Stephenson the most. She’s the kind of mother I want to be: fiercely loyal and protective, and loving to a fault. All she wants is for Travis to feel at home again, though he is really not sure where “home” is anymore.
While it’s easy to symphathize with Travis in general, his story hit a little closer to home for me. My childhood friend, Michael, spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and Iraq during the war. Like Travis, he still suffers from nightmares, insomnia, and depression. He saw many of his closest friends and comrades die or get injured, and lord knows what other horrors he must have witnessed. Travis brought tears to my eyes more than once as he recounted his memories of Charlie Sweeney, the best friend he lost, and as he deals with his survivor’s guilt. I just wanted to hug the pain away…
And that’s where Harper comes in. She’s the girl Travis unintentionally humiliated in middle school, despite the fact that he really liked her. Up until Travis returned home on leave, they hadn’t spoken since that time, and Harper is really not interested in hearing what Travis has to say. That is, until she socks him in the eye and has her say. Fierce and sassy! My kinda girl!
The relationship that develops between Travis and Harper is surprisingly sweet and breath-taking. She is the balm to his wounded soul, and when faced with his mood swings, she doesn’t back down or pity him. I caught myself shaking my head in awe at how grounded and real Harper is, and how lucky Travis is to have her in his life. I think the best thing about their relationship, though, is the uncertainty of it. They both realize that they can’t promise forever, not yet. But what they have “now” is plenty good enough.
We are also introduced to a couple of Travis’ friends, namely Kevlar and Moss. While they each deal with their part in the war in their own way, their banter in the lighter moments of the book had me laughing out loud quite a few times. There are no holds barred when these three are together. They burp and drink and cuss, and it’s all so natural, you feel like you’ve known these guys your entire life. Marines are not glorified in this book. If anything, we are reminded that the men and women who serve are just like all of us, and it makes me love and appreciate them even more.
Something Like Normal does not end with a “happily ever after”. It does, however, end on a note of hope. War is not pleasant and the effects of it are far-reaching. Travis left home as a boy and returned as a battle-scarred man. Through him, we learn that with each bend in life’s road comes a new perspective, and a new kind of “normal.” And as Travis says, “…something like normal is a good st