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Cara Sue Achterberg
An essential book about the complexities of families for my handbag but be prepared to experience a cocktail of emotions.
This clever novel may force you onto the psychiatrist’s couch to analyse your own life as well as searching for answers to the characters’ questions. For instance, Jenna asks:
‘Do you think that we all start out good and learn to be bad or are we just inherently good and others bad?’
‘Practicing Normal’ explores how the emotional landscape of our families influence who we are. Achterberg presents a skilful construction of modern family life that the reader can ponder and deconstruct: these are real people, with real issues, there is no ‘phoney’ nonsense because you get right inside of their minds.
The changing dynamic of Kate and Everett’s love is contrasted with the self-absorbing excitement of teenage love. Achterberg intelligently observes how our relationship with our parents and other experiences shape the capacity to love and the need to be loved. She explores the impact of children and other demands on a relationship. Achterberg’s style of writing is intelligent and measured, as she provides the reader with the knowledge of the issues that torment the characters. Kate explains that ‘It wasn’t until the kids came along that loving him felt like an effort.’ Everett tells Kate that she ‘completes him’ yet admits that he is addicted to sex with other women. The different perspectives from the characters are skilfully juxtaposed so that you gain a balanced perspective on events: Achterberg teaches her reader to empathise with all characters.
Kate moves from one crisis to another but believes that ‘crisis is better than real life’. Sadly, she is a prisoner to routine and everyone else’s emotional needs: She is a very astute observer of her family members but doesn’t confront them. The reader knows why she isn’t happy and wants to shout at her to take action. We gain insight into Kate from her daughter, Jenna. Although Jenna is a disaffected teenager ‘pelting everyone with her anger’, she is the most insightful. Indeed, her father, Everett, is not as mature as his daughter. He says, ‘I don’t buy the Asperger’s shit’ even though his son has been diagnosed with this condition. Jenna observes that her father is angry because ‘his kids are not living up to his expectations’ of ‘normal’, and she luxuriates in wearing a mask of rebellion. As a reader one despises Everett’s lack of empathy as much as one adores the boundless empathy of Jenna and her mother.
Everett doesn’t celebrate the amazing qualities of his own son who is ‘clever’, ‘funny’ and ‘awesome’. In contrast, Jenna and Kate are great at helping JT to be himself but they both struggle to celebrate their own qualities. Through Kate and Jenna, we learn about the challenges and rewards of supporting a child with Asperger’s. JT is the happiest character, living in his own world without the burden of worrying about others; ironically Everett is living in his own world, without a concern for others, but it isn’t making him happy. Is there a similarity between the emotional literacy of father and son that help them in the end? Maybe Everett needs to learn that, that ‘Love isn’t romance. It’s a grind. It’s being there every day, even when you don’t want to be.’
The characters in this novel are not static. You will have to read the novel to see if the characters settle themselves like ‘the sun settles itself in the sky’ at the end of the day. Be warned that this isn’t a cosy romance novel and it will challenge you.
I suggest that you bury yourself in the novel and let Achterberg teach you why, ‘the perfect house with the perfect family’ is only ever a veneer because everyone has issues and emotional baggage to handle.