I read a very great deal, but I’m kind of like a butterfly; while there are some things which will always draw my attention the most, I flit around quite a bit otherwise. When The Woman Who Tried to Be Normal landed in my inbox, I was intrigued to see that its protagonist was a synesthetic woman. I freely admit that I opened it strictly on that basis alone.
Synesthesia is basically a cross-allocation of the senses. While there are a lot of different expressions of the phenomenon, and I’ve never met two people whose responses are the same, it works more or less like this: a syesthete might see the bright blue color of a bus driving down the street and because of experiencing that color they also hear a sound, or even music. They might taste a flavor and see shapes in the air, or feel sensations traced on their skin. One of the most commonly-recognized forms causes the person to perceive colors when they see letters or numbers; if you’ve heard just a little about synesthesia, that’s probably the form you know. I’m drawn to stories about synesthetes because I’m one myself, and it’s always interesting to see the difference between how non-synesthetes and synesthetes write about the experience.
That said, this was an odd novel, and I’m still chewing on it.
The premise is that it’s 1975, and Helen Mendel, Stepford-wife wannabe, is doing her damnedest to come off as normal. Every action she takes is calculated, down to the tiniest tics of her facial expression. She feels no emotion beyond irritation shading to anger, and she doesn’t fit in with the “normal” wives in the suburban neighborhood her husband has just moved her to. But she has a goal: blend in and find out what her husband is keeping from her. Her next-door neighbors are the family of his best work buddy, and the story is in particular concerned with Ethel, a Valium-addicted alcoholic who hates life and whom Helen blackmails and seduces in short order. Their husbands are airplane engineers–supposedly–and both of them are stereotypical in their demands for sex, dinner on the table when they walk in the door, and unquestioning wives with smiles on their faces. The skin of “normal” life is very thin over horrors everyday and extreme.
There are no sympathetic characters in this novel, with the possible exception of Gigi, Ethel’s nanny. The men are all brutes, Helen is an emotionless, manipulative automaton, and Ethel pinwheels between sexually demanding and vicious with no seeming reason. Ethel’s baby appears in the story mainly to cry and irritate the adults in the room, Gigi’s husband only exists so that she has someone she needs to be saved from. The whole comes off largely like a forcefully-arranged stage play where one character freezes when the spotlight is on another, or like a box full of windup dolls. There’s an implacability to the way that they go through the motions, not one of them seeming to enjoy anything for more than a moment, all the smiles coming off as soon as the attention passes to someone else.
It is definitely horrific in ways great and small, from Helen’s repeated quiet attempts to make scrambled eggs to her husband’s specifications to sudden ultra-violence. There is a sense throughout the entire work that she is alien, is other in a way that makes her inhuman. But it isn’t until the climax that it’s revealed why–and the more seemingly mundane part of that revelation distressed me a little. You see, besides the poorly-camouflaged synesthesia, Helen is autistic. This, explains the narrative, is the reason behind her emotionless manipulations, her dispassion and total lack of attachment to almost anyone or anything. I am not autistic, and so far as I know I have only one relative on the spectrum, but I’ve had more than enough autistic friends to know that this isn’t right.
The synesthesia is also portrayed inelegantly. My own form of it is not one that gets written about a lot. It’s mild, and not usually visual (though once, when an industrial fire alarm went off directly above my head, my vision filled with glorious expanding silver geometry). Usually it’s that I smell and taste things which aren’t there for other people to perceive. Everyone I am close to has a scent, and their voices have a color–but I don’t *see* the color so much as know it is part of the person I’m talking to. The sound of an ice skate cutting fresh ice tastes like cherry hard candy, for instance, and my partner smells like snow clouds, and my old friend Gin’s voice has almost precisely the color of light through a good whiskey. But the thing about all of these impressions, all these bits of knowledge, is that they’re not interruptive. This is not a disability, and it doesn’t impact daily life negatively. And I’m not just speaking about my experiences, here. Many people don’t even realize that they have synesthesia until they’re adults. I was in my twenties before I found out that walking under the stars doesn’t taste like spearmint to everybody. When it’s how it has always been, there is no need to talk about it, and so there’s no way to know that anything is unusual. But Helen’s synesthesia, descriptions of which constantly interrupt the storytelling, are definitely what I would class as a disability. It blinds her, it fills her ears with raucous trumpets and gunshots and her mouth with foul flavors. Bluntly, it’s not the synesthesia I, any of my siblings, or any other synesthete I have ever met experiences. It seems likely to me that Ferrara did some research about synesthesia, but probably didn’t consult anyone who actually lives with it.
This work had some of the benchmarks of a self-published piece without a paid editor. There are a handful of grammatical errors which probably would not have survived a professional second pair of eyes, as well as a tendency to repeat the same verb or phrase too closely, sometimes twice in two sentences. The pacing is strange, from slow-motion sameness to a host of quickshot dramatic events in the last quarter of the piece. But it must also be said that a lot of self-published works are in genres or portray characters which would not find mainstream publication, so I tend to consider these errors and issues to be basically the entry fee to getting to read imaginative fiction. So while I wouldn’t use those problems as an excuse to write off the book on its own, one should go into reading it expecting them. And honestly, it was thinking about that that ultimately led me to a better understanding of the book. I went to the author’s homepage, where there’s a brief description of the characters’ appearances as she imagines them. Discussing the husbands, she says “You can think James Stewart or Gary Cooper or whichever traditional American man you can envision, though I know you probably won’t even bother…” and I realized all at once that this book is more or less stripped down to just the parts she wanted to write, anything she considers superfluous consigned to the wayside. It doesn’t matter what the men look like, they’re only here to drive the angst and get in the way of the porn. It doesn’t matter where that container of acid came from, or where the clean room with genetic experimentation tools might be, it doesn’t matter what their husbands are actually up to. Like a nightmare, only the high points are important. To that end, if you’re looking for a beach read that doesn’t have the hero riding in to save the day of the heaving-bosomed heroine, or maybe a book where the day isn’t saved at all, this might be for you.
WHAT I LIKED: The relentless pressure and horror of the situation was, to me, pretty believable for the era. It was nice to see any representation of synesthesia at all, even if so unrealistic. There were some really fun ideas now and again. It’s not common to see an author really commit to such an unlikable main character, so I had to tip my hat to her for that.
WHAT I DISLIKED: The thing which knocked me out of immersion in the narrative worst was that there were many instances of what John Scalzi refers to as Flying Snowmen. For me these were events and actions which were scientifically impossible in a way I found very distracting. I don’t mean the genius, the telekinesis, the super senses. I don’t even mean the obviously magical element of her being able to fly for no stated reason but that she “figured it out.” I’m talking impossible like the way it is repeatedly noted she can move “at the speed of light,” the real-world physical consequences of which would be catastrophic to her body and, well, the planet. She’s capable of things which if possible at all would require a great deal of time in a clean lab, but no such place or expenditure of time is ever hinted at. A single container of fluoroantimonic acid “three times the size of a bullet” is sufficient to dissolve an entire human corpse in moments, and so on. This strained my willing credulity a bit too far.
CONTENT WARNINGS: Infant death. Repeated instances of violence against women, brief mentions of horrific childhood and institutional abuse, possible rape, murder, desecration of a corpse, gore and temporary dismemberment, drug abuse, fat-shaming from the POV character. Sexually explicit.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: The mundane setting, 100% unreliable narrator and sort of creeping, inexorable dissolution of normality into something much darker reminded me a little bit of Violet LeVoit’s spectacular and very-recommended horror “I Miss the World,” available in electronic format from Kingshot Press and Amazon.
FINAL SCORE: 3/5 .