Imagine a heavy fog or mist making it difficult for you to see what is right in front of you or even close by. Imagine living with three other people and only concerned about your own needs, wants and desires. What happens when four people within the same family live together yet at times you might think they are living separate lives? Author Cara Sue Achterberg brings to light several issues that many of us toss aside, choose to ignore but are very relevant and important when we try and live our lives Practicing Normal. Everett Turner is the father in this family who seems concerned that he is no longer with the police force but an important figure in the new company he’s employed. Kate his wife is kind, sweet and all too often blind at what is happening in front of her and naïve you might say in many respects. Rather than see what is happening right in front of her and realizing that Everett and his past transgressions have not changed she either chooses to leave that mist or fog clouding the truth or just does not want to rock the family boat and keep things at what she thinks is an even keel.
Jenna is the teenage daughter with a rebellious yet in some ways sweet and kindhearted personality. School is a waste of time and she attends when the mood strikes her and at other times cuts out. Making friends with a boy named Wells on the bus who somewhat pays attention to her whereas Tiffany does not, Jenna seems to be a loner for the most part. Riding the bus but at times leaving school after one or two classes she has become quite skilled at breaking and entering the homes where no one is at home. Taught by her father how to pick locks she loves breaking into homes, looking around and finding great things to amuse her or eat. But, what happens when she gets caught? Jenna is really kind and although her parents are quite dysfunctional and do not always communicate their thoughts or feelings for fear of finding out some hidden secrets that might destroy their own view of a perfect world, Jenna can surprise you at times. Meet Grandma, who is nasty, mean, upset and expects Katie to cater to her every wish even though she had to quit her nursing job and care for her. Then there is rich sister Evelyn who is arrogant, selfish and wants to rid herself of any burden with her mother by placing her in a facility. But, it gets more complicated when you meet J.T. their son who has Asperger’s and who needs special care. Needing to adhere to his schedule, rituals and demands takes it toll on Katie and irritates Everett who has no tolerance for his son, nor does he understand his problems. Each person that has Asperger’s Spectrum has it on different levels on the scale. Each one is unique to the person. J.T. is brilliant and can watch a program and recount it word for word, line by line and picture by picture. His ability to grasp things like looking someone in the eye, shaking hands or socialization skills he feels is not necessary and won’t do it. His father feels he needs discipline and refuses to even try with him. When something happens and he is in charge and yells at time it takes by Jenna and Katie to get him out of the locked bathroom. Everett is self-centered and self-absorbed and has cheated on Kate with Charlotte and unfortunately her mother knows and uses every opportunity to throw it up in her face which is why when he still comes home late or works weekends she tosses and pushes aside that he might be at it again. Lift the fog and mist Kate and see what is right in front of you and face it!
The plot gets more complex as the author recounts why Grandma is the one that took care of both Kate and Evelyn as a single parent because Frank left her alone with two kids. But, Evelyn begs to differ and has made contact with him and both her mother and Kate refuse to see him or even hear the truth as he tells it. Did he really leave or was there another reason? Why won’t Katie open her eyes to any truths?
The Turners are invited to a neighbor for a chili cook-off and Kate immediately wants to create her own special recipe by trying out there that she finds online. Everett feeling guilty about his transgressions decides to go shopping for her with J.T. But, someone gets sick, has a heart attack and when no one knows how to perform CPR, J.T. does. Not wanting to do it himself he instructs the lady’s husband and safes her life. So, why is Everett so paranoid and not wanting him praised or his picture in the papers? Why would anyone sue them when the man performed CPR and not J.T. who told it all when in school and they are going to make a fuss over him and declared him a hero? Good for you J.T. Added Cassie, their neighbor adores Jenna who cares for her cats when she takes care of patients in need of Hospice care. Would her grandmother want some company maybe she could help her? But, Kate is not sure and yet her mother would love the company since it appears she is getting worse not wanting to be alone, have company, see or go outside and live a normal life. Why does she think the end is near and what’s going to happen when Frank, their father shows up?
The chili cook-off proves enlightening as her hostess could care less if her family shows up and yet Kate wins fourth prize in the contest. While Jenna and Wells are off somewhere and J.T. is watching his grandmother. Meet Phil a friend of Susan and Mark and who lost his wife not too long ago but seems interested in Kate and understands Asperger’s Spectrum as he’s a doctor and has a brother who has some of the signs. Meanwhile Everett recounts how he met Kate and his feelings for her from the start yet his mind is on Veronica and he knows if he does one thing wrong or tries to punish Jenna in any strong way she will make sure her mother knows leaving him no choice but to ignore her behaviors rather than the affair.
Things get interesting when Jenna and Kate have a mother and daughter talk and when Cassie visits Mildred and finds her funny and interesting. But, when Kate takes J.T. to a museum why does Everett feel the need to wander again. Guilt feelings aside grow up and become an adult and realize that you might lose what is right in front of you as Kate and Evelyn have it out again about Frank, their father.
J.T. has an IEP or Individual Education Plan and as an educator who understands Autism and has worked with students that are high functioning with Autism I recognize in J.T. that he is at times not challenged enough and when Kate and Everett go to the meeting with the team, it is the first time that he speaks out for J.T. and the end result he is going to be mainstreamed for Math in a high school in precalculus and that will stimulate his mind and maybe the other students in the class so why after doing something positive does he regress to negative. Added in Kate realizes that he might be doing someone on the side when she meets Veronica in the doughnut shop she works in and of course does not see the text that comes next. Jenna is with Wells whose parents prefer that he stay away from her and have grounded him until he brings up his grades and does not want him with Jenna ever. Seeing a text from another girl named Amber did not stop Jenna from what happens next. Each character wants to take center stage as the novel in told in three distinct voices: Kate, Jenna and Everett and each chapter presents the characters viewpoints and thoughts. Still, what is going to happen when Everett presents what he learns about Frank from the DNA tests he had done on Kate and Evelyn when we learn the hidden secrets and truth?
Things spiral even more out of control when Kate learns a harsh reality about something and she and Everett separate but not before a serious tragedy comes to light as a result of a secret her mother never wanted aired. An ending that is tragic and yet sometimes things happen for reasons that you won’t expect or accept. A family disjointed. A young girl named Jenna, who comes into her own, steps up to the plate, realizes her own shortcomings, yet trying hard to become a young adult. Accepting a job at her father’s company and really great with the clients she tolerates Everett. The ending will surprise readers and endear you and this reviewer to Jenna realizes that life is not always perfect, sometimes we have to accept the faults of others and we need to focus on our futures. J.T. is rattled by what happens and the tragedy that changes his family yet he accepts things and focuses on his next interest. Kate learns something that her mother never wanted aired and when meeting Frank the truths, lies and realities come to light and what they learn will not only surprise readers but will change it all for this family who is just doing what so many others do Practicing Normal. Characters that are true to life. Two women named Laura and Cassie that are a couple and I love that the author brings in and allows readers to get to know them and accept their love for each other. Everett and Kate their fate is up in the air but will they remain married or will Kate find happiness with her new neighbor? This is one novel that presents many different viewpoints, many different sides and you the reader will have to decide if the Turners who anyone can really and true ever succeed at Practicing Normal.
Issues asperger’s, acceptance, self-reliance, family lies and betrayals, tolerance, understanding differences, patience, secrets, hopes, deceits, finding your own way in life and accepting the good with the bad and dealing with an older person who is depressed, the ending will surprise you but the book is one that makes these issues stand out and is a must read.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine