Something Like Normal is the story of Travis Stephenson, a 19-year-old Marine home on leave after spending a year in Afghanistan. He should be relieved to be home, and yet he can’t help but wish he were anywhere else. His mother smothers him with her good intentions, his father views him as a disappointment, and his previous friendships feel stilted and awkward. All Travis wants is for life to go back to normal, a wish that seems impossible.
Travis is dealing with all sorts of issues, from flashbacks and PTSD to the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. He’s struggling to cope with the grief of losing his best friend and to figure out why his fellow Marines, whom he’s known for only a year, feel more like family than the people who raised him. Although he can be an ass at times, it’s impossible not to sympathize with him, and I found him to be a very real, very relatable protagonist.
I really admire how Doller manages to make Travis’ story moving and sad without stepping into the territory of sappy and overdramatic. The themes of family, war, and loss are dealt with seriously, but at no point in time do the events of the book cross over to the theatrical or seem like difficulties are being blown out of proportion simply to add tension to the plot.
An example of this is a point in the book where Travis describes the experience of returning to civilian life as feeling “like you’re a glass that’s filled to the top. Then you have to face everything back home and the glass overflows.” This statement, so simple and understated, beautifully conveys how overwhelming the transition is for a soldier and does so much more effectively than some long monologue about sadness and hardship.
Another strength of Something Like Normal is the authentic feel of the sections that focus on Travis’ experience in Afghanistan. It’s the little details that do it, like a description of Travis’ hands, full of “calluses, ruptured blisters, and scars from cuts that took too long to heal because my hands were always dirty,” or how Afghan sand, “the consistency of powder,” permeates everything and always makes the “first spit” brown when the soldiers brush their teeth. It’s the friendships that develop among the guys in the platoon, the jokes they tell, their nicknames and the stories of how they got them. Doller made me forget that I was reading a book, made me feel that I was actually a part of their world.
Between the emotional punch this book packs and the fact that it feels more real than many other novels out there, I was very pleased with Something Like Normal. I definitely recommend it, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Doller’s work.