First thing's first: I cannot believe this is a debut novel. Faking Normal is written with the precision, lyricism and flow of many other authors' seventh or eighth novels. Some authors never get there. Courtney Stevens is some kind of prodigy or something.
Honestly, I have very few negative things to say about this book. I'm going to start with them, because I don't want to leave you with any kind of negative impression by putting them later in my review. They will be out of the way, and then I can go on telling you how great everything else about it is.
I almost feel guilty that this bothered me even a little, but I couldn't get on board with all of the religious references. Not that it's overbearing or preachy-- far from it-- but it's also not one of those books that raises questions or doubts. Alexi's and Bodee's families are solidly Christian, and Alexi turns to God pretty consistently throughout the novel. But atheists, don't fear: this isn't the kind of book that will make you nauseous (*just don't read the acknowledgments, because they will). Other than the characters' church-outings and occasional references to God, it's all pretty secular. These aren't evangelical Christians and there is no political or social commentary from that perspective-- any commentary you'll find is about the situations, not the beliefs.
I didn't quite buy the friendship between Alexi and her two best friends, Heather and Liz. Liz seemed like a great friend, if the typical good-girl, committed-to-God type, and Heather always thought she had Alexi's best interests at heart, but often their dialogue was strained and repetitive. There was one section in particular where I wished these three characters would open their eyes and stop talking about the same things all the time. Heather and Liz both indicated they knew there was something wrong with Alexi, but they never paid enough attention to actually help her through it. They somehow missed the scratch marks on her neck and how uncomfortable she never failed to be around the football boys; they let her go off by herself when she was obviously upset, all too easily believing her lies about why she was upset; Heather incessantly tried to set her up with a boy in whom Alexi clearly had no interest, and then shuts her out completely when something happens that's not even remotely Alexi's fault. Both friends just grated on me after a while.
But that's it. Those are literally the only negative things I have to say about Faking Normal.
As a book that tackles several heavy topics-- rape, PTSD, domestic violence, even emotional abuse-- it had potential to be very dark and unforgiving. But what I loved is that it's shot through with light: Bodee and Alexi have the kind of friendship that makes the stars in the sky seem a little brighter, the darkness a little less infinite.
"He doesn't shush me or say I'm okay. He knows I'm not. There's none of the pacifying I feared. Bodee is all arms and heartbeat. All unflustered feelings and fail-safe strength. A kiss breezes the top of my head, but he's so gentle. As if no part of him would steal my security. Ever."
"The path is sloppy, and mud kicks up as we run slapdash toward the creek. Wet leaves stick to my shoes, and I slide. Bodee keeps us upright; not that his traction is better than mine, but because it's what he does. He planks the creek with the board, and tests his weight and balance against the slickness of the wood. Always checking, always careful. And protective. If I'd befriended Bodee years ago, maybe I would have found my voice.
We only get the story from Alexi's perspective, but it's clear that she means as much to Bodee as he does to her. He is going through a personal tragedy too, and it's Alexi who helps him find his voice. Theirs isn't a romance as much as it is a friendship, one of those perfect friendships that arise out of mutual need and understanding and willingness to make it work. There's none of that this-is-a-good-thing-so-I'm-going-to-screw-it-up-because-I'm-screwed-up crap going on, which is refreshing because it seems like a common belief that people who are broken can't allow themselves to have good things in life, for fear of breaking those too. Alexi and Bodee both realize that what they have is a good thing, and they never make those decisions that frustrate you as the reader because they're obviously only intended to create tension. They do what is right for each other, always-- and that means being there.
As for the subject matter, I thought it was all handled brilliantly. I'm not an expert by any means, but it seems as if some thorough research (or, hopefully not, experience) went into creating this story about a girl who suffered something awful and violent (you can probably guess, but since the jacket copy doesn't say exactly what happened, I won't either) at the hands of someone who was supposed to be her friend, and a boy who witnessed the worst possible thing happening to his favorite person in the world, at the hands of someone who should have loved them both. Alexi's guilt (as well as Bodee's) after what happened to her seems all too realistic, and her coping mechanisms natural answers to the pain she still feels.
On a more surface level, the book demands to be read. I started it at 8:30 at night, fully anticipating that I would drag it out over the next couple days, but it had other ideas. I finished at 2:30am. The mystery throws you back and forth between two suspects, and several times I thought I had it figured out until a sentence or two would change my mind and I would try to decide who I was supposed to think was the culprit (because obviously whoever you're supposed to think it is, it is never that person). Finding out who it really was wasn't some mind-blowing revelation for me, but the book was never about the mystery anyway. It's about surviving after tragedy, finding your voice and moving on when all you want to do is hide under your bed or in the closet and count the slats in the ceiling vent.
Basically, I can't recommend this book enough. I think it's not only a good book with fantastic characters and a healthy central relationship, but an important story about quiet survival.
Read it. Look, I even gave you a link.