We’ve been surrounded by older male protagonists recently. Firstly there was Jordi’s review of Fire in the Sea, then there was our older male protagonists book list, and now it’s Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal.
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.
Male protagonists are hard to get right, I think. No matter the type of protagonist- sweet talking or plain speaking, the screw up or the straight and narrow, quiet or loud- the character deserves to have life breathed into them. They deserve to feel and express the vast emotions in our world. Sometimes I wonder if male protagonists get a bit of a hard deal. Do we let male protagonists express themselves, even in their inner thoughts? Has there been a genderisation of emotions; jealousy is feminine; anger is masculine; love, female; lust, male. Can female authors write true representations of male protagonists? Or is the true male protagonist that made by a male author? Does our very gender limit what we understand? Complex and compelling questions that I don’t have the answer to. I do know that I am harder on female authors writing male protagonists, along with male authors writing female protagonists. Do they really understand, I ask myself. Do I really understand?
All these questions and Something Like Normal helped me turn them off. Travis engaged with me as a reader. He wasn’t a romanticised Romeo, or a wise-cracking Stifler (American Pie). He moved through the plot with the whole range of emotions and he felt them in a unique and characterising way. He wasn’t feeling or expressing them as a man, he was feeling and expressing them as Travis. That’s not to say he didn’t fall into lust or anger, but when he did feel them he was confused and conflicted by them, such as his sexualisation and lust for his ex-girlfriend, Paige, worried him. Their sexual encounters fell flat for Travis because they lacked any kind of emotional connection. They made him feel uncomfortable, bereft and question his integrity as a person. His emotions were complex and conflicting, but he was able to acknowledge them straightforwardly (even if he felt unable to do something about it to break the pattern). I appreciated his honesty, even when I was put off by it (sleeping with his ex-girlfriend, who is currently his brother’s girlfriend, whilst in-like with his first crush). His lust and anger were unique to him, not a production of stereotypes. I didn’t read a female author writing a male protagonist, I read Travis’ story. I believed Travis and I believed Trish Doller.
His relationship with his mother was a highlight for me. It was really honest and one of the few books I’ve read where the complexity of mother-son relationships was focused on. Travis feels that he is to blame for the sadness that permeates his mother’s life, and he feels inadequate and impotent when confronted with his mother’s helplessness in her marriage. Yet he doesn’t know his mother, she was always just the person in his life that drove him to school and made his lunch, neither liking or understanding her.
Something Like Normal is not a soldier’s story or PTSD story, it is the story of Travis, who happens to be a soldier with PTSD (lest you be turned off by the very American sounding blurb). My only complaint is that it ended too soon. I liked Travis and was sad to see him go. I was left feeling that momentary loss of friendship and understanding.