A Guest Review by Sammy
Review Summary: A boy’s journey into manhood and the family who ushered him along his path.
Blurb: “Were it a dream, it would be a most wondrous dream; but it’s more. It’s a life. And I don’t have to remember any of it. It remembers me.”
With these words, Gene Poole-Hall takes us on a beautiful coming-of-age journey that will leave you questioning any preconceived impressions of the definition of normal, and lead you to the conclusion that when it comes to family, at the heart of the matter, it’s the heart that matters. Gene’s story begins with his adoption into an extended family that includes everything from a few drag queens to a well respected rabbi. If Gene’s life is anything but normal, he isn’t aware of it. He enjoys all the advantages of being an only child at the heart of a family of unrelated adults bonded together by mutual love and respect.
Review: Gene is adopted by two men who have hearts with an overwhelming capacity to love. Surrounding these men, Ben and Tom are a core group of the most unusual characters who make up the family unit that raises not only Gene but three other adoptive children as well. Ben, a drag queen by weekend and “Mother” to Gene is the sphere that essentially all the other characters in Stephen J. Mulrooney’s novel gravitate around. His partner, Tom is a quiet, yet insightful father to his brood and the steadiest of anchors in a seemingly rollicking household.
Along with Tom, is Uncle Josh, Ben’s best friend and a rabbi, to boot, who has seen his fair share of loss and pain but has somehow managed to remain wise and patient and so very loving. Interwoven are a few close friends, also drag queens and a cast of minor characters that bring their own brand of zaniness into the mix.
At its heart, Normal?, is a coming of age novel that follows Gene from the age of ten to adulthood. Along the way he nurtures a deep crush on his adoptive brother, Robbie, falls into his first sexual affair with an abusive and dominating friend of his brother and meets, in one brief, shining moment, a young man who will show him what love is really all about.
The story describes with sometimes poetic detail what it is to grow up in a household that is rife with unconditional love and support. While it is a fantastical tale that finds each adoptive child also gay, and seemingly no real hardships for two gay men to be raising such a brood or even adopt easily each addition to their household, it manages to convey a sense of family and loyalty that is sweet in many ways. In fact, the author’s keen sense of humor graces each page, keeping even darker moments in Gene’s life light and often enjoyable to read.
So…why not five stars then? Well, it is just this fantastical air to the novel that I felt was its ultimate downfall into a less than perfect story. With each nonsensical addition to this memoir, I felt myself doubting the veracity of the author. Instead of understanding more fully what made Gene and his family tick, I found myself reading about a cast of characters that remained just that–characters. I wanted more meat. I wanted to know the hearts and minds of these people, develop an affinity with them, care about what would happen next in their lives.
Instead, I found myself thinking that none of them seemed real enough for me to relate to on any level. When the main character began to insert his early attempts at writing stories into the main plot line, I got excited because I thought this might be the vehicle which the author would use to reveal more of the heart and soul of not only Gene but others in his family as well. Instead these “mini-stories” served to just pull me out of the main flow of the overall journey and, in fact, began to be annoying at best.
I do believe it is the author’s prerogative to present a coming of age story with as much imagination and humor as possible. However, somewhere in there we should be privy to the very real heartaches and trials a gay boy would go through on his way to adulthood. Regardless of how lovely a family we have, we all experience certain traumas and setbacks in our lives and Normal? fails to really address these in a way as to show how they impacted and allowed the main character to grown and change. This lack of reality was disappointing for me as a reader. I felt I had been cheated out of the real heart of Gene’s journey and give mostly the fluff of his life instead. For me, Normal? by Stephen J. Mulrooney seems incomplete and left me wanting more.
Normal? is a sweet coming of age novel but it is curiously somewhat emotionally removed and distant. It is a well written story, with many lovely passages that will have you sighing over the author’s word choice and beautiful turn of phrase. However, Normal? stops just short of having the impact a novel of this genre should have. I am not sure that many young adults could relate to Gene’s journey and that many adults might dismiss it as “nice” but not real. As always, dear reader the choice to read is yours. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.