I love protagonists who screw up. Perfect protagonists are boring! In particular, I love protagonists who acknowledge their flaws and the fact they will make mistakes before they make them. I also love books that talk so explicitly about feminism and position their protagonists as feminists. Am I Normal Yet? is Holly Bourne’s sometimes sad, sometimes funny, always compassionate portrayal of a girl trying to live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Evie is a flawed protagonist and self-declared feminist (and spinster!). She tries hard to be good—tries hard to be normal—but she makes mistakes, just like the rest of us, and eventually some of those mistakes catch up to her.
People I follow on Twitter and watch on YouTube have been raving about Bourne for a while now, so I figured it was time to see what I have been missing. So I ordered all of her books from Book Depository (yay free transatlantic shipping!)—go big or go home, right? I rightly should have started with her earliest works, but I couldn’t resist this first book of the Spinster Club trilogy. It was the tail end of my week off, and I wanted something good to read, you know? I had an inkling that Am I Normal Yet? would hit the spot, and it totally does, in every respect.
Let’s get right into the best parts: Bourne’s portrayal of feminism here is so interesting and refreshing. Firstly, she does not patronize younger readers. Her three 16-year-old protagonists are fully capable of having intense philosophical and theoretical discussions on a high level of gender roles, just as real-life 16-year-old girls are—while simultaneously lapsing into debates about boys and friends, just as real-life 16-year-old girls are. The idea that you have to be one or the other, feminist or “slut”, brainy or bimbo, good girl or bad, is a total false dilemma. Bourne’s 16-year-olds are every bit as complicated and messy and imperfect as real 16-year-olds, and that is awesome.
Secondly, the feminism portrayed here is bottom-up, rather than top-down, and I love it. No adult shows up and says, “Hey, let’s form a school club for feminism and call it the Spinster Club!” It’s something that Evie, Amber, and Lottie come up with on their own, together, their own unique brand of feminism. This is an exciting and empowering idea to expose teenage girls to, and it speaks directly contrary to attempts by corporations to co-opt feminism as a kind of cool, commodified, consumerist movement. With the Spinster Club, Bourne shows us that feminism can—and arguably must—be a very personal movement. The Spinsters are engaging with issues related to feminism that affect their lives directly, such as whether one can date a stereotypically macho guy and still be feminist, or the extent to which one should change one’s behaviour and tastes to get with a guy. If you want a book that’s going to hook your kid on feminism, Am I Normal Yet? is a rather strong contender. It drops a ton of f-bombs (both feminism and fuck), but it’s not a textbook. This is feminism in action, and it’s beautiful to behold.
When they struck upon the idea of calling themselves spinsters, I had to photograph the page and send it to the friend—a self-declared spinster as well—who lent me Spinster. Evie, Amber, and Lottie’s attitude towards the word is precisely what Kate Bolick talks about in that book: they are reclaiming spinster as a term for a woman who does not define herself by her attachment, or non-attachment, to a man:
“Think about it,” I continued. “When boys get older, if they don’t find someone they get called bachelors. We get called spinsters. There isn’t a word that means male spinster. Just like there isn’t a word for a guy who sleeps around—whereas there are TONS for girls. The English language itself is sexist—it reinforces these overgeneralized, screwed-up notions about how boys and girls are allowed to be…”
So they reclaim spinster to mean “you value your female relationships as much as your male ones…. Being a spinster means not altering who you are, what you believe in, and what you want just because it makes a boy’s life easier.” In this way, these three young women very directly engage with the concept of patriarchy and the fact that society makes so much out of women being objects. It starts from birth, with women being given their father’s last name (which they are, traditionally, expected to retire in favour of the husband’s name upon marriage). By adolescence, girls learn to define themselves and their value based on their relationships with boys: do boys find them attractive (or “bangable” as Evie might put it)?
Despite these declarations of feminist independence, however, the message here is neither misandrist nor anti-relationship in any way. The spinsters still crush over cute guys, and they make some mistakes along the way, which leads to conflicts among themselves and with others people. And this is where the OCD part of the story really comes to the fore. Bourne could very well have gone and written just a feminist YA novel and it would be awesome—but no, Am I Normal Yet? has to be both a feminist and mental health novel and rock the world instead. Pfft. Overachiever much.
Evie’s fear of relapse and her burning desire to be “normal” drives the whole plot, of course, and what’s interesting is what Bourne does with that. I’m going to skip over Ethan (who’s a dick) and go straight to Oli, because the scene between Evie and Oli at the end of their date is when I knew that Bourne had me hooked. As I put it in a tweet, she next-levelled me:
Just as I was about to leave, I looked at myself one more time in the mirror. Really looked. My hair was up, my top clung in all the right bits, a bag hung off my shoulder. I looked like any other sixteen-year-old on her way to a party. From the outside, nobody could tell what had happened to me, and I’d worked so hard to make it that way. Then I understood why I’d done what I did.
I enjoyed being the healthy one. That was it.
For the first time ever, I was the normal one.
And it had felt intoxicatingly good…
That’s what I’m talking about! When I say I like protagonists who make mistakes, I’m not really talking about Evie’s fear of revealing her condition to her new friends, or the fool she makes of herself in the way she behaves with Guy—I’m talking about her betrayal of Oli. Instead of seizing a perfect moment to sympathize with someone, to find someone who would understand her struggle, Evie twists it around and uses it as a moment to validate her attempt at normality. This is such a clever, heart-wrenching twist; it keeps the novel from becoming too preachy or clichéd, and at the same time it forces us to see how desperate Evie is to be seen as a functional adolescent.
It should come as no surprise or spoiler, though, that Evie’s OCD plays a significant role in the climax. After fighting so long to pretend to be normal, the stress of that pretense is too much. Watching Evie finally break down is probably the most difficult part of this book. It reminds me of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, which also pulls no punches, and also features the protagonist’s younger sister finally seeing the true injuries of a mental illness. It’s the reason “Content is not suitable for younger readers” is plastered across the back of this book—but the inclusion of this scene and its consequences for Evie is so important that to leave it out would be a travesty. By writing this, Bourne acknowledges that mental illness is not something one simply experiences and then walks away from. The denouement of Am I Normal Yet? is basically a PSA for supporting people with mental health issues—but Bourne also returns to the feminist theme and points out the ways in which we gender mental health and the harmful consequences for both men and women.
Am I Normal Yet? is not as bleak as Wintergirls by any measure. However, the two books also share unique narrative conceits to capture the protagonist’s voice and mental state. I like the offset “bad” and “good” thoughts, though I confess I wasn’t a huge fan of Evie’s bubbliness at the beginning of the book, and I’m a little curmudgeonly about this trend of SHOUTING AT THE READER when we have perfectly good italics to get the job done. Nevertheless, these stylistic quibbles on my part do nothing to diminish the substance of the book, which is nothing short of brilliant.
We place so much social capital on this idea of normal when it is always an illusion and this obsession with it just exacerbates the mental health issues we want to treat and avoid. Am I Normal Yet? smashes the myth of normality while simultaneously smashing the patriarchy. There is so much joy and laughter for the reader in here—Bourne and her characters are so full of life and such fun to be around—but it comes with several intense moments. When Lottie asked, “Why are you here?” at the very end of the book, I broke down and cried a little bit. Because friendship can never be unconditional but we always hope they’ll be there in the end. Because feminism is hard enough when you’re a privileged white dude like me, let alone a 16-year-old girl with OCD constantly being told to be normal and pretty (but not too pretty) and smart (but not too smart) and slutty (but just the right amount of slutty). Because people are complicated, and Am I Normal Yet? gets that, and it shows you all their myriad complexities while telling a damn fine story in the process.