Initial reaction: This book had its share of flaws, but I still thought it was a powerful story for what it offered. Definitely shook me in places as I read it.
I think Courtney C. Stevens's "Faking Normal" surprised me in terms of how powerful it turned out to be, especially for the way approached the experiences of its main character. I think part of what made this narrative standout was the great audio reading by Emma Galvin. Galvin's voice and emotional resonance tend to compliment teen books very well from the experiences I've had with her readings before, and this was no exception. I think she especially provided a raw honesty for Alexi's character that stuck with me. It was part of the reason why I liked this narrative as much as I did.
It's not a secret that this book focuses on the horrific experiences that Alexi endured over a long stretch of time, but most notably over one summer that changed everything. It's not until after she ends up colliding with Bodee's particular situation that she actually starts confronting the reality. I'll admit I came into this book with varying degrees of skepticism, but decided to see where it would take me.
Alexi's going through a number of different transitions in the course of "Faking Normal". Her sister's getting married to a long term fiance, she's struggling with an incident that happened over the summer that changed her views of relationships entirely (it's not hard to figure out what it is and I think the suspension in the narrative is more of a reflection of the character trying to come to terms with that reality, rather than a measure to keep the reader in suspense), and she's having to bring into her family a classmate who recently experienced a horrific ordeal of his own (Bodee - his father murdered his mother and he's having to testify against his father's crime and long term abuse. He ends up staying with Alexi and her family for a time.).
Alexi is a character who has many insecurities and that showed very much in the narrative in terms of her voice and her interactions with the other characters. I saw her flaws through her voice - internal musings as well as external. That's not to say that she was the easiest character to follow (there were times when her judgments regarding other characters drove me up the wall). But the insecurities and the walls she puts up with respect to the inner turmoil she has is very realistic, palpable, and consistent. I think that was the thing that made me invested in her character and want to know how she eventually comes to terms with everything going on around her.
I was struck by how realistic Alexi's cycle of denial was from a psychological standpoint. Granted, you kind of get that impression considering this book's called "Faking Normal" and what meaning that takes on. She has a hard time speaking up for what she wants because of this idea that she has to accept what's done to her (rationale being due to fear, anguish, not wanting to upset the balance of those surrounding her, maybe even hoping that somehow faking it will help her ease into some sense of normality) , that she doesn't have a voice, that it doesn't matter what she wants. For victims of trauma who are in this kind of denial/self-blame, those are not uncommon musings and I think Stevens does a decent job of showing this.
However, I have some bones to pick. I think "Faking Normal" could've done a better job with the measure of showing/defining dubious consent, sexual assault, and rape. Stevens touches on these measures in variant capacities in the narrative, but she doesn't really do a good job of defining them via a coming to terms for Alexi as Alexi struggles to make sense of her experiences. For a narrative tackling such subjects as these, that's extremely important, especially for teens to be able to know (Heck, if it's hard for adults to be able to define in some measures and discuss, think about how this comes across to a younger audience for the shaping.) I think while this narrative did a fine job of showing the anguish that Alexi went through and the emotions behind Alexi's ordeals, it didn't do a very good job of shaping the definition of these experiences and prompting further serious, formal discussion of these ordeals. Which is why I debated my rating for this book for a while after I read it.
This book also touches on the cliched "love heals trauma" measure I see in many New Adult novels, though I would say that it didn't bother me as much in this book as others I've picked up (that may be a personal thing - I could definitely see some readers taking issue with that in this novel because there are shades of it here). Bodee is a boy with some seriously heavy burdens - they're given weight in the narrative (and Alexi does actually call him out in some measures for his denial/reluctance to testify against his father). Do I think Bodee's experiences could've been expounded upon more? Absolutely YES. I felt like there wasn't enough of a balance given to both of their coming to terms and there was more of a leaning where it seems like he's helping her come to terms more than she's helping him, and there's a significant reliance on the affection rather than the issue being dealt with. That's a problem that I think more YA/NA authors need to be mindful of. There shouldn't be such a heavy leaning on significant others helping another character to heal via the "power of love" (more often than not, a male "healing" a female character) because people truly coming to terms with trauma or serious issues doesn't work in that single dimension. More often than not, that particular focus can undermine the pain/ experience and coming to terms the afflicted character goes through. For "Faking Normal" - I never got a sense that the sentiments were anything less than genuine or some kind of narrative ploy, so maybe it didn't bother me for that reason, but it was still a problematic leaning I noticed in thinking about the narrative after the read.
I will say that this book gripped me with its scheme of events - Stevens's writing is immersive and focused - giving me access to how Alexi thought/felt and how she gradually came to terms with what happened to her as well as handled the relationships around her. The slow burn didn't bother me (matter in point, I actually liked it because it gave me a chance to see the characters interact/react over time).
The climax of the novel tugged at my heartstrings - I couldn't look away from it and I was glad that Alexi had her chance to rise against her rapist in the scheme of the novel.
Overall, I think this book is worth reading for the experience and to serve as a conversation starter. I liked the investment in the difficult subjects it chose to show, even if I thought it could've provided better definitions and discussions surrounding the measure.
Overall score: 3.5/5 stars.