Courtney C. Stevens’s debut young-adult novel, Faking Normal, opens at a funeral, where the sixteen-year-old protagonist, Alexi, reflects on the death of her schoolmate’s mother. Already called the “Kool-Aid Kid” because of his penchant for coloring his hair, Bodee will now be gossiped about because his dad murdered his mom, Alexi thinks: “I never understood life could be so dramatically sectioned, but it can. And is. There is only after. And before. My moment was by the pool; Bodee’s is by the casket.”
This allusion to what took place beside the pool offers the first clue to Alexi’s deepest-held secret, which dominates her intense, eloquent introspection and unspoken desires. The enormity of her suffering stems from both the trauma she endured and the pressure of keeping it to herself. In Bodee, Alexi finds a friend whose pain mirrors hers. Over the course of this compelling story, the two help each other to stop pretending that everything is fine and face their demons.
Alexi’s desperation to maintain the appearance of normalcy is at direct odds with her need to give voice to a secret that has “claws.” Her complicated feelings have turned her life into something that looks like a pot of on the verge of boiling over. Day after day, at school and home, she is “faking normal,” acting as if she’s not dying on the inside.
The novel provides an additional layer of mystery—one with hints of romance—in Alexi’s secret exchanges of song lyrics with a guy whose identity she doesn’t know. During fourth period, where she feels “life begins,” Alexi jots down lines describing how she feels and what she’s going through, short phrases that capture her hurt and longing. “Love in pencil is safer than love in love,” she writes. She leaves the lyrics on a desk, and they’re always returned—answered and filled in—by the person she’s nicknamed “Captain Lyric.” He, like Bodee, understands her pain, and the anonymity of their relationship makes it safe for Alexi to open up in ways she doesn’t do with Heather, her best friend, or her caring family.
In authentic prose, Faking Normal takes on heavy psychological issues, and it’s a testament to the book’s character development and pacing that this story doesn’t get mired in its darkness. The surprising path that leads Alexi and Bodee to feel at home and safe in the world is just as engaging—and perhaps even more satisfying—as the final revelation of their secrets. A Nashville resident, Stevens has crafted a first novel in which the truth not only sets Alexi free but also breaks her heart wide open.
Courtney C. Stevens will discuss Faking Normal at Parnassus Books in Nashville on February 25, 2014, at 6:30 p.m.
Tagged: Children & YA