May 04, 2005

This IS Normal! Julie Anne Peters' Define "Normal"

A recent family gathering elicited reminiscences of the first time my family met my husband. The story was told to wide-eyed guests, "He was this huge hulking boy, all dressed in black, with this eye liner, and this black lipstick and nail polish, and dyed hair - you should have seen his hair... and he didn't say anything, and she just walked in with him like he was perfectly normal!"

Well -- okay. Goths aren't normal to everyone, and admittedly I knew that my family's studied non-observance was going to be pretty strained. But I was bringing home a friend, and when they gave him a chance, they found that he was a nice guy... and anyway, what's with the labels? Define "Normal!"

The only drawback to this tightly written piece of realistic fiction by Julie Anne Peters is that I wished that it would have taken place in a high school setting -- but Middle School is probably brutal enough. There are kiss-ups and squids, dorks and jerks aplenty by the end of elementary school, well on their way to being Wallflowers and Plastic People in high school. This story takes place in that in-between world where there's still time to choose who you want to be. (Actually, there's always time, but not everybody's convinced of that.)

Jasmine - or Jazz, as she prefers to be called, is one of those girls who has a posse just like her. They're loud and proud, dyed, pierced and tattooed. They're riot grrlz with a cause, and they make their mark on every school. Antonia is quiet, dressed neatly, and respectful. She even has a prissy name, and she doesn't have a nickname. A member of the math club, she's a little proud of her abilities to be resourceful and maintain an even keel in the world of junior high. She plans to go to a good school, and volunteers to do peer counseling. She meets Jazz -- and dislikes her at once. How's she supposed to help someone like that? And -- what's her problem, anyway? Why won't she just quit staring, and talk?

Opposites attract, as Jazz and Antonia eventually get to know each other. Antonia is shocked to discover that Jazz isn't some lowlife trailer-trash -- her thrashed and pinned together outfits were once designer clothes. Jazz is a little shaken to discover that Antonia's math club mentality is driven by seeing her mother struggling to pay the rent. When Antonia's home life tanks, she relies on Jazz to help. But can she? And will she? Who's supposed to be helping whom, here?

Peters crafts the quintessential character-driven story, motivating intense interest in the novel's outcome merely by devising deeply felt, dimensional characters and supporting cast. Antonia's first person narrative on the joys and trials of peer counseling, Jazz's constant attempts to shock and disgust her, and the escalating tensions in Antonia's personal life are presented with no fluff, backstory or excess filler. Additionally, the inclusion of discussion on mental illness creates a new dimension of realism that will be welcome to young adults struggling with clinical depression within their families.

This is one of those look-and-learn books, dear writers, and one for the personal library. Julie Anne Peters rocks, as usual.


Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I really enjoyed "Define Normal." I read it a while ago after finding it in the children's section of the library, and was pleasantly surprised. I wasn't sure it was a story I would find believable, but Peters brought these characters to life in a well-rounded way. Now that I think about it, too, this book was a little inspiring for my current novel-in-progress, in which there's a developing friendship between a high school preppy nerd and a goth girl.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what I'm missing, but I'm halfway through "Define Normal" and I'm finding it cliched beyond belief. I can see what Peters is doing, but the characters don't resonate with me at all. At the moment, they are more pictures than flesh and blood. I really hope my opinion changes soon!

Anonymous said...

You don't have to change your opinion MeiMei! You can hate it!

I just think that JP's characterizations are golden. She somehow manages to breathe life into even the most implausible characters. I wasn't prepared to find the characters all that believable myself, but she scored, I think. I want my characters to seem like people I knew in high school, too.