I was peripherally aware of this book for a while — when I was volunteering at my local library last summer, one of my fellow volunteers was reading it, so I knew it existed — but I didn’t seek it out until I noticed it was going cheap on Kindle. While stories about transgender characters are important to me, on the whole I’m more interested in those which about something else as well, rather than those where identity provides the whole story.
(This is true of all LGBTQ stories, although with others it’s usually because I’m not all that into romance, and so would like to see queer characters who aren’t defined by their orientation and relationships.)
I decided to read this late on Thursday night to make up for how disappointed I’d been by World’s End, because I knew if I went to bed dwelling on how annoyed I was to have spent a fair amount of money on it, I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Fortunately, this cheered me up and I enjoyed it; less fortunately, it meant I didn’t go to bed until 2am because I make poor life choices.
The Art Of Being Normal features two trans characters, one who has transitioned and one who is still closeted. It explores various struggles, including intolerant classmates and the stress of coming out to parents, while also celebrating their slowly-developing friendship in a way that I enjoyed. It’s set in a school in England, I think a grammar school (certainly a better-funded state school than the one a character previously went into), but at times seemed a little American, because this school has ‘balls’ that function pretty much like prom.
As a result, there were times when its portrayal of school didn’t match up with what I remember, since we didn’t have a dance at Christmas and in the summer, and if we did I find it hard to believe that people would have cared that much about it or about having dates — we had a year eleven prom and a year thirteen prom, and pretty much all my friends went solo. I didn’t go at all.
But I digress.
While I thought for the most part the portrayal of these trans teenagers were sensitive and well-researched (e.g. mentions of a specialist clinic in London — I know people who’ve been referred there), David in particular raised questions about the performative nature of gender. He’s interested in fashion, and makeup, and dressing up, and while this isn’t his reason for saying he wants to be a girl, it goes hand in hand with it. But I know lots and lots of girls who aren’t interested in those things, and don’t feel any less feminine as a result. While it’s perfectly understandable that somebody’s gender identity should fall into these somewhat stereotypical bounds, I think there’s room to criticise that, because it didn’t ring entirely true for me.
We see less of Leo’s feelings towards his identity because he transitioned (ftm; David’s mtf, but still in the m stage at the moment) before the book began, but I was still a little more convinced by him. Then again, I know a fair number of ftm folks, and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth but now don’t identify that way, but less of the reverse — perhaps David’s experience is very common, and I just haven’t come across it.
I would like to one day see a story about a transgender character who firmly identifies as a girl while being disinterested in fashion and the like, because I think that would raise interesting questions about the nature of gender identity and the role of social expectations, but that wasn’t what this book was about.
Ultimately, it’s a cute story about two friends who realise they’re more alike than they seemed at first, but what I also liked is that both David and Leo have friends and relationships outside of this central idea, and they’re not isolated. Their parents are to a certain extent on the scene, they have siblings, and they have other friends — well, David does. It helped make the story a bit more well-rounded and less focused on a single idea.
I think I might be a bit of a sucker for the kind of cute, happy, it-gets-better stories that are all too rare in LGBTQ fiction. Bad things happen in this, but the fact that these issues are overcome is more satisfying for me than it would be in a straightforward adventure story (ha, pun). It goes back to the subversion of the ‘bury your gays’ trope — I just want queer characters to be happy occasionally, and this provides. Not in an unrealistic, airy-fairy way, but in a ‘things aren’t perfect but they’re improving’ way.
I can’t pin down exactly why my two-in-the-morning self gave it four stars on Goodreads, but I’m not about to take any of them away just because I can’t remember what I was thinking. It has a cute ending, things get better for the characters, and it was a whole lot more satisfying to read than the other book I’d read that day — I guess those were enough reasons, so it’s getting the four stars here too.