When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother’s stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It’s not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he’s had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again. Travis’s dry sense of humor, and incredible sense of honor, make him an irresistible and eminently lovable hero.
Something Like Normal is a pretty short book, since it takes place over the course of Travis’s 30-day leave following a tour in Afghanistan. It’s a novel about how a soldier must reestablish normalcy when at home, and how complicated that process is for a young soldier like Travis — he doesn’t even know who he is yet. At the age when most people are “finding themselves” as college freshmen, he’s half a world away in a hostile country.
A big part of the novel is about family and how entering the military affects more than just the enlisted person. Travis comes from a pretty average family — that is to say, an insane one. His mother is a caring homemaker who spends his deployment worrying and putting together care packages. His dad, a former NFL star, spent years grooming his son into a miniature version of himself, and feels nothing but disappointment and alienation once Travis gives up his sport. Ryan, Travis’s younger brother, is a grabby snot sick of living in his brother’s shadow. With only thirty days leave, Travis has just enough time to come home and see their problems, but not enough to be of much help to them.
Aside from Travis’s family, the novel explores the relationship between marines. Doller writes their dialogue quite realistically — they razz each other, have philosophical arguments just to kill time, and find shelter from American “normalcy” in each other. The only obvious mistake I saw was that Travis refers to himself as a grunt instead of a jarhead at one point.
While at home, Travis also has a fledgling romance with a girl he knew as a kid. Harper doesn’t exactly have fond memories of him, and when they get reacquainted it’s far from love at first sight. As a love interest, Harper is the kind of woman Travis needs — she’s down to earth, doesn’t take nonsense from anybody, and respects herself.
While I wish the book was longer, it’s still a great read. Doller manages to write about what are essentially depressing topics without being depressing. At no point does the narrative resort to melodrama, and the emotional moments don’t feel forced. Something Like Normal is an excellent New Adult contemporary, one that I would recommend to anyone looking for a realistic romance.