This is a revision of a review originally posted on Butler’s Pantry.
Williamson, Lisa. The Art of Being Normal. 352 p. FSG, 2016. ISBN 9780374302375.
David’s classmates call her a “freak.” It started when she was eight and shared with the class what she wanted to be when she grew up. Other kids wanted to be sports stars, actresses, or the prime minister, but not David. She wanted to be a girl. Aside from her two best friends, Essie and Felix, she is isolated in her posh high school, where no secrets stay hidden for long. Although she longs to tell her parents the truth and start her life as Kate, fear of rejection keeps her feelings locked inside her.
Leo Denton is desperate to escape Cloverdale. His acceptance into the elite Eden Park High School is his best chance to leave behind the bad memories at his old school and his unstable relationship with his mother. He dreams of finding his father who left when he was a baby. All Leo has to do is keep his head down and stay out of trouble so no one will learn about his past. However, when he finds himself falling for the popular and artistic Alicia Baker, his secrets get harder to hide in the spotlight.
Set in the suburbs outside of London, The Art of Being Normal is a coming-of-age story that explores gender identity, socioeconomic differences, and what it means to fit in. Written in first-person narration, the chapters alternate between the perspectives of Kate and Leo. Overall, the self-acceptance narrative is flawed by a fixation with cis-normative standards of gender expression. Leo “passes.” He is never once denied masculine pronouns except in overt instances of bullying. However, when he chooses to share his story with his father and with the girl he likes, he faces rejection. Kate, on the other hand, gets misgendered throughout the book, even by her allies. No one calls her “Kate” until she starts wearing dresses, and the chapter markers designate her as “David” too. While The Art of Being Normal provides visibility for transgender teens, it fails to challenge cis-normative standards or break out of the gender binary.