Tag Archives: Asperger’s Syndrome

#Bookreview PRACTICING NORMAL by Cara Sue Achterberg (@CaraAchterberg) A great book about the games families play and what love really is.

REVIEWS FOR LITERARY WORLD REVIEWS

Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg
Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg

Title:   Practicing Normal
Author:   Cara Sue Achterberg  
ISBN13:  978-1611882445
ASIN:  B06XH4SJW6
Published:  31st May 2017
Pages:  336
Genre:  Women’s Fiction, Family Life
Description:

The houses in Pine Estates are beautiful McMansions filled with high-achieving parents, children on the fast track to top colleges, all of the comforts of modern living, and the best security systems money can buy. Welcome to normal upper-middle-class suburbia.

The Turners know in their hearts that they’re anything but normal. Jenna is a high-schooler dressed in black who is fascinated with breaking into her neighbors’ homes, security systems be damned. Everett genuinely believes he loves his wife . . . he just loves having a continuing stream of mistresses more. JT is a genius kid with Asperger’s who moves from one obsession to the next. And Kate tries to manage her family, manage her mother (who lives down the street), and avoid wondering why her life is passing her by.

And now everything is changing for them. Jenna suddenly finds herself in a boy-next-door romance she never could have predicted. Everett’s secrets are beginning to unravel on him. JT is getting his first taste of success at navigating the world. And Kate is facing truths about her husband, her mother, and her father that she might have preferred not to face.

Life on Pine Road has never been more challenging for the Turners. That’s what happens when you’re practicing normal.

Combining her trademark combination of wit, insight, and tremendous empathy for her characters, Cara Sue Achterberg has written a novel that is at once familiar and startlingly fresh.

“Does facing the truth beat living a lie? In PRACTICING NORMAL, Cara Sue Achterberg has given us a smart story that is both a window and a mirror, about the extraordinary pain ― and the occasional gifts ― of an ordinary life.”
– Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN

“What does it really mean to have a normal life? Achterberg’s stunning new novel explores how a family can fracture just trying to survive, and how what makes us different is also what can make us most divine.”
– Caroline Leavitt, author of CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD and the New York Times bestsellers PICTURES OF YOU and IS THIS TOMORROW

“PRACTICING NORMAL takes a deep dive into the dysfunctional dynamics of a ‘picture perfect family.’ A compelling story about the beautiful humanity in the most ordinary of lives: from first love to a marriage on the downward slide to an unexpected family tragedy. Achterberg handles each thread with tender care and we can’t help but root for every member of the Turner family.”
– Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of THE VANISHING YEAR 

Body of review:

I was given a copy of this book as a gift and I freely chose to review it.

Tolstoi’s probably best-known quote: All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way fits perfectly this novel. As a psychiatrist, ‘normal’ is one of those terms that we always seem to come back to, even if it is impossible to define. It seems that normal is always what other people are, never us. Perhaps, as it is discussed in the novel in reference to Autism and Asperger’s, which are conditions that fall within a spectrum, the same is true for normality. It is not an on or off thing. Perhaps we all belong to some point within the spectrum, but we’d be hard pushed to find many people whom we’d all agree were ‘normal’, at least if we got to know them well.

The novel introduces us to the Turners, who live a reasonably comfortable life within a theoretically idyllic neighbourhood. Once we scratch a bit under the surface, we find: Jenna, the sixteen year old daughter, who is not a goth but likes to shave her hair, dye it in interesting colours, collects piercings and is an ace at breaking into neighbours’ houses (courtesy of her father’s job in a security company). Kate, her mother, is forever busy caring for everybody but herself. She has to look after her mother, Mildred, who might be dementing, or perhaps not, and who lives alone, never leaves the house and talks to her birds. She also has to look after JT, her son, with an Asperger’s diagnosis, who cycles through periods of obsession with different topics (ER Medicine, Fire-fighting…), has tantrums if his routine is disturbed, cannot read people’s expressions or understand their feelings, but is a genius at Maths and has an incredible memory. She also runs around the rest of the household and is always worried about her husband, Everett, who cheated on her once (that she knows of). The chapters alternate the first-person narrations of Jenna (who somehow becomes friendly with the rich, handsome and all-around nice neighbour, Wells, who isn’t, after all, the stereotypical jock), and Kate (whose sister, Evelyn, has made contact with their father, Frank, who left them when they were young children, and believes their mother has been lying to them) allowing the reader to better grasp, not only the secrets they all keep from each other, but also the different ways the same events can be interpreted and seen. Everett’s narration (also in the first person) joins later, giving us hints of more secrets to come,  allowing us a more rounded picture and offering us a male perspective.

I found the first person narrations served well the topic, and the voices of the three narrators were very distinct and fitted in well with their characters. Although personally, I can’t say I liked Everett very much, no characters are despicable and all of them love their family and each other, even if they might go about it the wrong way. Jenna’s strong hostility towards her father is easy to understand, not only because he cheated on her mother (and is still doing it after promising not to) but because she had idealised him when she was a child and he’s shattered that illusion. She is clever, challenging and reckless but with a great heart (she doesn’t care for rules or conventions but has no bad intentions) and her romance will bring warm memories to all readers who are still young at heart. Kate is a woman who is always at the service of others and makes big efforts to ignore what she feels she can’t cope with, even if it means living a lie. But she learns that she is stronger than she thinks and grows during the novel. She also gets to understand that her dreams of romantic love are unrealistic, and we feel optimistic for her at the end. Everett is a man who lost his way (it seems) when he left his job as a policeman. Now, to feel better about himself he’ll do almost anything, not caring what the consequences for himself and others might be, and he always puts his needs before those of the rest of his family. He does not understand his children but he loves them and tries to do what he thinks is best, within limits. JT is a wonderful character, well-drawn and realistic in terms of the behaviours he exhibits and his relationship with Kate, Jenna and the rest of the family is heart-warming and has the ring of truth.

There are many secrets, some that come from a long time back and some much more recent, and the narrative is good at revealing them slowly, even if we might strongly suspect some of them, partly because we have access to the thoughts of several the characters (as they don’t communicate with each other that well). There are also many love stories and many different kinds of love that are explored. Ultimately, love must be about more than just saying the words and looking into each other’s eyes. It isn’t something we should feel automatically entitled to; it has to be proven and worked on, as Cassey, a friend of Jenna and later Kate, explains.

The secondary characters are also interesting, mostly sympathetic (with the exception of Wells’s family, and Evelyn, who comes across as self-centered and domineering) but not drawn in as much psychological detail as the members of the family, but they are far from unidimensional. I really liked Cassey, the hospice nurse who understands all the females of the family and helps them without asking anything in return, and Phil, a good man who, like Wells, disproves Mildred’s generalisations about men. Mildred, the grandmother, can be at once annoying and endearing, but eventually, we get to understand her a bit better, even if we might not necessarily agree with her actions. I also loved the animals, especially Marco.

This is a well-written book, where plot and characterisation go hand in hand, that offers good psychological insights into the nature of family relationships and the games members of a family play with each other. It also will make readers think about what love means and will remind them of the risks of keeping secrets, not only from others but also from ourselves. The narration flows well and once you get to know the characters it’s difficult to stop reading and you feel bereft when you come to the end as they’ve become part of the family. A great read.

I couldn’t leave you without sharing a few of the sentences I highlighted.

Never break more than one law at a time.

Kate talking about JT, her son, with Asperger’s: but I focus on what JT can do, not what he can’t.

Kate again, wondering about her son’s inability to read other people’s expressions and know what they’re feeling or thinking:

Maybe it would be easier to sail through life unaware of the emotions of the people around you.

And Jenna, on one of her typical (and oh, so accurate, sorry gentlemen) pearls of wisdom (although this one she keeps to herself):

If men didn’t have penises, they’d probably be a lot smarter. 

Ratings:
Realistic Characterization: 4.5/5
Made Me Think: 4.5/5
Overall enjoyment: 5/5
Readability: 5/5
Recommended: 5/5
Overall Rating: 5/5
 Buy it at:  
Format & Pricing:
Paperback:  $ 10.75 
Kindle: $ 8.95 
Audiobook: $31.86 

Thanks to all and remember to like, share, comment, click and to review all the books you read!

Olga Núñez Miret

@OlgaNM7

http://www.authortranslatorolga.com

 

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The Imitation Game. Is normal always best?

Hi all:

While we wait to see if any queries will come to the desk of the psychiatrist regarding characters or plot twists (we don’t really use divans), I thought I’d write about something else that I’ve been pondering about for a while.

The Imitation Game. Poster. imdb.com
The Imitation Game. Poster. imdb.com

I went to watch The Imitation Game (that I really enjoyed. I’m not sure how accurate this biopic is to the life of Alan Turing, but the story is fascinating and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is extraordinary) and it got me thinking about how many characters in TV series (Sherlock himself, or the female Swedish detective in The Bridge, Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory), films and books are…different. One of the readers who left a comment in my post also observed the same. He noted that characters like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are by no means  your normal Joe, but it would difficult to make them fit into a standard psychiatric diagnostic category. Many of the psychopaths (that by the way, is not a psychiatric diagnostic category, although used to be a legal one in the UK before changes to the Mental Health Act) that grace our books and screens are also (hopefully) not quite the picture we have of our friendly neighbour. One possible explanation —apart from the fact that we’re always interested in people and places that are far from our usual environment— would be that some of them are shown as engaging in extremes of behaviour and going to the dark side, that maybe we have theoretically thought about, but would not cross over to.

But I think with some of those characters, there might be something else at work. Of course, Alan Turing is not a character in a book (well, it is, but based on a real person), but if we are to go by his depiction in the film, he appears to have likely suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome (part of the Autism Spectrum Disorders), very high functioning. He is very single minded and obsesses over his work, with no evidence of any other interests, has very few social graces, and although we do not know much about his childhood, from his conversations with the only friend he is shown to have when he was a teenager, Christopher, he’d always been “different”, as he quotes his mother remarking on it at times.

There is a fairly illustrative scene, when he is talking to his friend, and Christopher gives him a book on cryptography and code breaking. When young Alan asks what that is and Christopher explains, Alan asks how is that different from normal human interaction because (and I’m paraphrasing here): “People never say what they mean and one has to try and decipher what code they are using and what they are really trying to say.” Can you even imagine what it must be like to try and navigate a social situation without being able to read people’s expressions, and taking literally everything you’re told? If you’ve ever experienced extreme cultural shock on finding yourself in an environment that was completely alien, imagine that multiplied by…many. Maybe, just maybe, these characters put into context, or highlight, how our social interactions work, and how we take for granted and natural, codes of behaviour and speech that are nothing but. They might help us reflect on the true nature of our prejudices and the moral compass of a place, a time, and a society. Perhaps they might make us realise that we are the truly weird ones.

The facts of Alan Turing’s life, his tragic death and his terrible treatment at the hands of the justice system of the time (being a homosexual in the post-war era wasn’t easy) only highlight that the “normal” society, the one that’s supposed to be flexible and easily adapt, makes no such efforts most of the time.

If we can sometimes look around and appreciate something different after reading a science fiction book in which pages we recognise a distorted image of our world, we might do the same by offering a different perspective on our social world through some of our characters. Just saying.

By the way, I leave you a link to the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists’ page on Autistic Spectrum Disorder information page:

http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/parentsandyouthinfo/parentscarers/autismandaspergerssyndrome.aspx

From that page, a summary of some of the behavioural manifestations of the disorder:

Overall, the problems and behaviours can be divided into three main areas:

Difficulties with communication

Children and young people with ASD have difficulties with both verbal communication (speaking) and non-verbal communication (eye contact, expressions and gestures). Some children may not be able to talk at all or have very limited speech.

Some have good speech and language skills, but still have difficulty using their speech socially or to sustain a conversation. Their use of language may be overly formal or ‘adult-like’. They may talk at length about their own topics of interest, but find it hard to understand the back and forth nature of two-way conversations.

Difficulties with social interaction

Children and young people with ASD have difficulty understanding the ‘social world’, for example, they often have difficulty recognising and understanding their feelings and those of people around them. This in turn can make it difficult for them to make friends. They may prefer to spend time alone, or appear insensitive to others because of their difficulties understanding social rules and expectations.

Difficulties with behaviour, interests and activities

Children and young people with ASD often prefer familiar routines (e.g. taking the same route to school every day, putting their clothes on in a particular order), and tend to have difficulties dealing with change, which they find difficult and distressing.

They may also have unusual intense and specific interests, such as in electronic gadgets or lists of dates. They might use toys more like ‘objects’ to line up, for example. They may have unusual responses to particular experiences from their environment such as tastes, smells, sounds and textures. For example, they could be very sensitive to the sound of a hair dryer, or the feel of certain materials against their skin.

Some children show unusual repetitive movements such as hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complicated whole body movements.

If you are in the UK, this is the link to the National Autistic Society:

National Autistic Society (UK)

http://www.autism.org.uk/

And in case you want to check The Imitation Game in Rotten Tomatoes (it seems it opens in the US on Christmas Day):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_imitation_game/?search=The%20Imitation

Thank you so much for reading if you’ve found it interesting, please like, share and comment. And if you want to CLICK, that’s fine too.