By Courtney C. Stevens
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Courtney C. Stevens' debut novel could be a giant mess. The heroine was raped; the hero's father killed his mom after years of abuse. But it's a really lovely book, one that explores the issues it raises with compassion and a focus on character. (Note: it takes a long time for the word rape to be used in the novel, but it's fairly evident early on what Alexi is not saying.)
I'm a little conflicted about some elements. I love Bodee, the hero. He's a sweet boy who is very understanding of Alexi and her boundaries, but still finds ways to help her recover even as he's dealing with his mom's death and the fact he has to give a deposition about what he witnessed. At the same time, Bodee is a total manic pixie dreamboy. He's a perfect romantic fantasy. But his improbable lightness helps keep the dark subject matter from being over the top. I think Bodee works for the purposes of FAKING NORMAL, but he might bother someone looking for strict realism.
Alexi's real struggle is finding her voice. She couldn't bring herself to say no during the rape, although she signaled a lack of consent in nonverbal ways (such as sobbing through the act). She feels guilt and shame for not saying no. She doesn't want to speak up now, because she'll ruin her rapist's life. He's nice, he just made a mistake, she insists to herself. She can handle seeing him all the time. Alexi's inner conflict about what happened and how to handle it really showcases the terrible messages many people internalize about rape, rape victims, and rapists.
There were a few other parts that strained my credulity. Alexi manages to find real, solid memories of why she couldn't say no. I found it more believable that she just couldn't in the panic of the moment. Alexi's sister's cruelty goes a bit beyond sibling teasing.
But I really did enjoy FAKING NORMAL. I particularly liked Alexi's two best friends, who have their own relationship troubles but want the best for Alexi. They know something is wrong, and just try their best since they don't know why. And, again, Bodee is wonderful in his perfection.
I don't think FAKING NORMAL will be the book for everyone, but I liked that it tackled rape and abuse with a slightly lighter hand. It's a strong debut for Stevens, and I look forward to whatever she does next.