Karen E. Bender's novel Like Normal People makes the reader consider the ramifications of the title. Are there such creatures as normal people? Her story of three generations of a family dealing with mental retardation, as well as more typical trials like marriage and death, asks us to reevaluate our conceptions of normal. Bender's rhythmic prose and pacing suggest that instead of attempting to categorize each other, we should concentrate on what makes each of us unique.
At the center of the novel is Lena, a 45-year-old woman who acts like a child in many ways. While she cannot live on her own, and tells people that her cat Simone is touring Paris, Lena remains a solid and compelling force. Her difference causes strife for those who care for her, but she also provides a loving center for a sometimes fragmented family. Bender's portrayal of this complicated woman never yields to sentimentality, but always remains tender.
Lena's mother, Ella, struggles with her daughter's condition even as she shows her love in ways like eating the potato chips Lena insists on calling salad. Ella's younger daughter, Vivien, represents a closer approximation of a typical daughter, but is determined to take care of Lena herself. Throughout the novel, mother and daughter grapple with the question of who will be in charge of Lena's care.
Yet it is Vivien's 11-year-old daughter Shelley who finds herself closest to the complicated Lena. The friendship between Lena and her young niece supersedes family hierarchies. Shelley, who feels left out at school, especially enjoys her time with Lena. As Bender writes of their relationship, (Shelley) and Lena, in their revelations to each other, had become naked. And this gave way to an indescribable tenderness. Their bond reminds us of the boundless nature of love.
This novel has been eagerly anticipated since excerpts appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories 1997. With her poignant and finely nuanced portrayal of three generations of women, Bender has lived up to the hopes that her debut novel would enthrall readers and critics alike.
Eliza McGraw teaches in the English department of Vanderbilt University.