CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 18. . . .January 11, 2013
The New Normal.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2013.
222 pp., pbk., pdf & epub, $9.95.
ISBN 978-1-4598-0074-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-0075-5 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0076-2 (epub).
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
As I walked down the hall to my locker, I heard people whispering and saw them nodding towards me and staring and talking behind their hands.
They already knew.
Everyone already knew.
I might as well get on the PA and make an announcement: "Hello, Canyon Meadows High. This is Tamar Robinson speaking. Yes, sister of the evil twins, now deceased. If you haven't already heard, I am actually completely bald. Not just on my head, but on my entire body. Yes, even down there. And I will probably be hairless for the rest of my life. Thank you for ostracizing me, and have a nice day."
Tamar Robinson is 16 and losing her hair. But that's for sick people or people under massive stress, she says, and she reports that she's not stressed. So it's a mystery, right? Except that Tamar has recently lost her younger twin sisters in a car accident. Her mom has retreated into a yoga obsession. Her dad has completely checked out. But Tamar is still trying to maintain a semblance of normal life, and she seems genuinely surprised that her hair is falling out in huge clumps. There to help is her friend Roy, king of the chess club, who sends her for alternative therapy and will always lend a hand. But when the last hairs come out, Tamar needs a wig and money to buy one and a job to get the money, and her jobs end with mild sexual harassment and being held up at gunpoint. And her popular but reckless sisters have left behind drug debts which a dealer expects Tamar to cover. It's hard to imagine a more stressful life, but Tamar is determined to stay on an even keel and figure it all out.
This novel is a joy to read from start to finish. Tamar is complex, never boring and remains a charismatic and appealing character at her best and her worst. She's smart and funny and doesn't know how cool she is. That might be a common theme in teen books, but, given the burdens heaped on this one girl's shoulders, it totally makes sense. This is a girl still figuring out who she is, and the fact that her family has basically fallen apart is making that more difficult but even more vital. Partway through the book, Tamar's mom leaves for a yoga retreat, and her dad falls off the roof, parental actions which means Tamar's really on her own. Luckily, she does find people she can count on, and those relationships are developed in a believable and entertaining way.
When Tamar isn't improving at chess, working at the burger shack, wig shopping or trading a guitar to her sisters' drug dealer, she is rehearsing for the school play. She never expects to get a role, but she's cast as Auntie Em. The book ends with a road trip from small town Alberta to BC to pick up Tamar's mom who has been kicked in the head by a cow and has not actually abandoned the family. It's Roy who steps up and drives Tamar and her dad on this trip. When Roy and Tamar finally become more than friends, it all happens perfectly and naturally. It doesn't solve Tamar's problems – in fact, it almost creates more as Roy is graduating and moving to Vancouver. Should she go with him, she wonders? This low-key romance is so much more touching and sweet than the ones usually portrayed in teen novels.
There are some dropped plot threads and strangely random events that are never really resolved or integrated into the novel as a whole. For example, Tamar is invited to prom by three guys after she is outed as hairless, but her date stands her up, and readers don't really find out why. In another incident, the mean star of the school play has it in for Tamar (oddly, she seems to have a crush on Roy), and she actually beats Tamar up. Tamar remains passive, and while I longed for her to stand up to her bully and to the principal who suspends her, I knew that was asking more than Tamar was ready for. Tamar's visit to the acupuncturist is intriguing as he asks her more questions about her mental health than anyone else in the book. But he suddenly goes back to China and is never heard from again. And the uncomfortable touching which causes Tamar to leave her first job comes out of nowhere and is dropped just as quickly. That's a shame because it's a common problem for teen girls but one rarely written about. But even these problematic elements don't detract from the overall narrative.
The New Normal is a powerful story about accepting yourself and your circumstances. At first, Tamar is pleased when she manages to find a way to conceal her baldness and even gets compliments on the scarves she wears to hide her head. But when everyone finds out her secret, she decides she just doesn't care anymore, and she starts baring her baldness for all to see. And even though she still doesn't quite get it, the reader sees that she becomes a subject of fascination and respect in her school (hence the several invitations to senior prom). The road is very bumpy for Tamar, but author Ashley Little almost always keeps just the right balance between tragedy and comedy.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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