January 26, 2013

The New Normal

by Ashley Little
Orca Book Publishers
222 pp.
Ages 12+
Release date March 2013
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy

This is my reality.  I was sixteen and being hunted by a drug dealer.  My hair was falling out and my sisters were dead and my parents were broken and there wasn't a goddam thing I could do about any of it. (pg. 28)
This is The New Normal for teen Tamar.  And the drug dealer bit is the very least of her worries. Really. She can handle that and she does.  But the other repercussions of her twin sisters' deaths (in a car accident while driving with drunk boys who played road chicken) - her hair and her damaged parents - are not as easy to handle.

It's only been a few months since the death of her younger sisters and Tamar and her family have been falling apart.  Neither of "the parents" have worked since the accident.  Mom throws herself into yoga and more yoga.  Dad spends a lot of time in his bathrobe on the couch. And Tamar has been losing her body hair, in clumps, while she sleeps, on towels.  Though she keeps up her routines, attending school and playing with the chess club, false eyelashes and hats or bandanas are now part of her style.  Keeping it a secret has been manageable; her dad hasn't even noticed and her mom knows but tosses it off.   But when her friend Roy Lee, a Grade 12 student in the chess club, pulls at her bandana and reveals her lack of hair (luckily this happens away from school), Tamar tells him of her mysterious hair loss.  Fortunately Roy who cares for Tamar is more concerned about her health than her appearance.

Tamar continues to find ways to manage: looking for a job to help pay for a wig;  auditioning for the school production of The Wizard of Oz and earning the role of Auntie Em; starting to go out on dates with Roy; and working at the Cruisy Chicken.  Of course, she can't predict that the play's Dorothy would bully her about her sisters and tell Tamar she's not good enough for Roy, then pull off her wig and get Tamar suspended from school.  Or that Dad would fall off the roof and injury himself and need extra care.  Or that Mom would decide to take off for six weeks to study yoga and meditation at a retreat on an island off the BC coast.  But Tamar has a good head on her shoulders (even if it is becoming hairless), recognizing that, after an especially terrifying situation,
"the whole experience had made me feel lucky to be alive, and I hadn't felt that way in a long, long time." (pg. 213)
Even though Tamar and Roy are in their mid-teens, The New Normal is a great middle-grade novel, having less of the urgency and edginess of young adult novels.  Ashley Little has found the means to knit the grief of loss with the innocence of first love, both times of confusion.  With that first love, Tamar doesn't even realize that she's starting to care for Roy, that he has asked her out, or that there are others who see them as a couple.  Similarly, Tamar isn't sure about expressing her grief.  She continues to have flashes of memories, tender or nasty, of her sisters, but in many respects she is suppressing that grief, unlike the parents who are inundated with it.  For Tamar, that grief can only come out as a physical symptom, but it allows her to see her sisters' deaths in a different context and as part of a bigger picture.  It goes beyond the sadness and anger and lets her continue to live.  She might not embrace The New Normal but she knows it is what it is and doesn't try to make it otherwise.  Her parents should have paid attention to her a little sooner. 

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