Antonia used to be a model student, but her troubled homelife is catching up with her and people are beginning to notice. Jazz is part of the school’s rebellious crowd of punks and goths, and she’s hiding secrets of her own. When the two are paired together for peer counseling, Antonia thinks this will never work. But slowly, the two girls begin to learn more about each other, and even more slowly, they start to form a bond.
I was very pleased to read and review this book with Darren of Bart’s Bookshelf.
Amanda: Hi Darren! Thanks again for reading this book with me. This is my third experience with Julie Anne Peters’ work, after Between Mom and Jo and Keeping You a Secret. It’s also my first experience with a book of hers that doesn’t address GLBT issues. How did you like the book? When I started, I wasn’t sure, since it was so different from her other books, plus the characters were so much younger than what I was used to. It took me awhile to warm up to Antonia and Jazz, but once I did, I really enjoyed Define “Normal.”
Darren: Hi Amanda! This is my third experience with Julie Anne Peter’s books as well! Between Mom and Jo – which was of course your fault! 😉 and her short story collection, Grl2Grl. This one felt like a more ‘traditional’ style teenager novel than others I’ve read in recent years, not that that’s a bad thing, but it was a little adjustment I had to make. But once I had I really liked the book. I actually got on with Antonia and Jazz quite quickly, and enjoyed seeing their stories develop. I hate to bring up the ‘Issue’ word, but Julie Anne Peters brings a few to the table with this one, judging people on their appearance, clinical depression, and friendships, how do you think she wove them all together?
Amanda: I agree with you that this is very much an “Issues” book. I think she wove them together well, but I did notice them more here than in her other books, even though they also deal with issues. I think this one was less subtle about the issue treatment maybe? Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just different. Lots of things felt different for me, actually. At the start of each Peters’ book I’ve read, there’s been this immediately stomach-clench when I can just FEEL that the character’s situation is not going to go well. That was the same here, but what changed for me was the way the climax and ending panned out. All her endings are ambiguous, with some good and some bad, but I felt more hope in this one. More happiness. Unlike with her other books, Define “Normal” didn’t suck the guts out of me and leave me sobbing. I didn’t feel empty and drained when I finished. Again, not a bad thing, just different. How did this one compare, quality-wise, to your other experiences with Peters?
Darren: I tend to prefer it in novels when issues just ‘are’ if you know what I mean, it falls back to the rule of show-not-tell I think, but yeah because the focus was at least partly on the development of the friendship between the two main protagonists it made it work. As for where it falls in among the other books I’ve read by Anne Peter’s I’d say Between Mom and Jo is still by far the better book (because it really is that good) and worked better than the short story collection Grl2Grl, because we were given time to get to know and like the characters. What did you think of the friendship between Antonia and Jazz? While I was never as bookish and staid as Antonia, and my friends didn’t have nearly the attitude of Jazz, I was fairly ‘normal’ and my quite a few of my friends were Goths and dressed accordingly, so I never questioned the validity of their friendship, but it’s quite clearly designed to make the reader question their own prejudices.
Amanda: I was more like Jazz in high school, though not to that extreme, and I had friends like Antonia, also not to that extreme, so I did like that they were able to get over their prejudices and become friends. On the other hand, I thought it was a bit strange for them to have such strong prejudices in the first place. We’re talking 14 year old kids, and kids tend to have less prejudices coming into relationships than adults. It seems like Antonia saw Jazz more like adults would see Jazz, which felt slightly unrealistic to me.
Once I got used to it, and the barriers started breaking down, it was better, but at the beginning I found it a bit jarring. I also was pretty sure from the beginning that things were not the way Antonia saw them, with the whole peer counseling setup. Without spoiling anything, I was pretty sure from the beginning that I knew exactly how things would end. Did you find the book predictable?
Darren: Yeah, but then it set its stall out quite early on, and never tried to be anything other than it was. The interest was in how we got there and I think the author did a decent job of keeping the journey fresh and interesting. Without giving too much away, did you think teacher in charge of the peer counseling programme was being manipulative or just being a good teacher, personally I tend toward him using his skills and judgement, but I can see why the two of them feel manipulated, and it did feel a realistic teenage reaction.
Amanda: Yes, I agree. The situation felt laid out and predictable, but I was still interested in where the story went and how they got to the end. The predictability factor didn’t matter. In the end, it all boiled down to the characters. And I’d agree with you about the teacher. He was smart and he knew both students well enough to know that they could get past their biases to become friends. I think both Jazz and Antonia needed a friend outside their little worlds. A friend that could be there in all ways, instead of in the limited way that, say, Jazz’s punk friends were. I have to admit, that bothered me just a little. I think some of the punk/outsider/goth stereotypes were a played up a tad too much. Maybe it’s because in high school, I was part of a similar crowd, but I get really defensive when I see authors present that stereotype. I’m just glad that Jazz’s friends came through for her (and for Antonia) eventually.
I sound like I’m doing nothing but criticizing this book! I really don’t mean to be. I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t as powerful as the other books by her that I’ve read, but I’m starting to think Peters can do no wrong! She’s a wonderful author and I’m glad I’ve been able to turn so many other bloggers on to her books!
Darren: I think a lot of the possible stereotyping stems more from Jazz’s stubbornness than anything else, and yes it was pleasing to see, them accept the people that Antonia and became (well more who they always were, but you know what I mean). Sometimes, you don’t need an emotional roller-coaster to enjoy a book, it’s just really nice to see nothing more than a friendship develop and prosper, and that is definitely what you get in this one. I really like Peter’s writing and I have to thank you for pushing Mom and Jo so much, so that I picked up a copy and discovered her.