Getting to Normal: A Book Review

I hadn’t anticipated using the #FridayBookShare template to write another book review so soon after the last one. But then I hadn’t anticipated that Sandra Campbell’s debut novel, Getting to Normal (2001, Stoddart) would affect me as it did.

First Line of the Book

Getting to Normal opens unusually, with a two page hospital admission report. From it we learn that seven-year-old Alice Redfern is in hospital as a result of fever, a severe headache, and episodes of agitation and screaming followed by extreme lethargy.

The first paragraph of Chapter 1 provides an excellent sample of the author’s style and introduces us to both Alice and her thirteen-year-old sister, Sarah.

“I was waiting for Sarah. I’d never heard her footsteps on the glassy rubber of these hall floors, but I’d know them anywhere. As I held myself still so my breath couldn’t get in the way of her sounds, she popped up inside my head, striding tall down the hallway, her long legs bringing her directly to my door. On her feet were her saddle shoes, all polished navy blue and white, and her white socks were carefully folded just above the bump of her anklebone.”

There is no debating that the effects of trauma experienced in childhood may have grave consequences.

Asa Don Brown

Recruit Fans by Adding the Book Blurb

Step inside the heart and mind of a troubled child as she struggles to belong.

In a tiny hospital room, seven-year-old Alice suffers from mysterious headaches and acute withdrawal. The doctors suspect a virus of the central nervous system. To complicate matters, during her illness and subsequent recovery at home, Alice is locked in a struggle to connect to her “nervous” mother, her often-absent father, and her sister, Sarah, a moody and rebellious teenager.

When Alice’s mother flees to New York to escape the stress of home life, Irma, a refugee from Sarajevo, is hired to care for Alice. The vivacious Irma encourages Alice’s natural curiosity and capacity for laughter and imagination, and the young girl begins to blossom, until appearance-obsessed Sarah warns, “It’s not normal that you like your babysitter so much you never even think about your mother.”

In this deeply moving novel, we see the world through Alice’s unique perspective, her voice captured with beautiful and stirring authenticity. As she plunges into a painful crisis of loyalty, belonging, and loss, Alice engages our hearts in an exploration of what we need to stay fully alive.

Introduce the Main Character Using Only Three Words

Alice is bereft, loving, and delightful.

Delightful Design (add the cover image)

Getting to Normal book cover
The cover is appealing. I only wish that Alice could be this carefree.

Audience Appeal

Getting to Normal would be enjoyed by social workers, teachers, foster parents, or anyone interested in understanding the inner life of an emotionally neglected and damaged child. I know that I’m puppy-obsessed right now, having just rescued Shylah, but I also saw all kinds of parallels between Alice’s struggles and my puppy’s.

Getting to Normal isn’t easy to read–I was in tears several times–but it is worthwhile. 

In presence of the Moon, nobody sees stars.

Amit Kalantri

Your Favourite Line or Scene

Alice’s mother has gone to New York, claiming a need for recovery from the strain of Alice’s hospitalization. Alice has been confined to her bedroom since her discharge from hospital, a discharge the mother fought. A budgie in a cage is placed on the bedcovers and Alice is told not to move or she will scare the bird.

When Irma arrives to care for the family, she puts the birdcage on the floor and introduces Alice to the game of ‘beauty salon,’ beginning with a facial.

“Now in Europe, in the real beauty salons, they start with the face. A facial makes your face sparkling and bright so your eyes will really shine. Now you hold up that mirror and just watch what will happen here.”

Irma picked up a small cloth from the water, squeezed it in one hand, and began dabbing my face with it. The cloth was warm and soft and smelled sweet. She breathed in deeply as if she liked the smell, too.

“Rosewater, Alice. I always add a little for sweetness.”

My eyes never left the mirror as she moved the cloth all around my face, stroking slowly, carefully, never rubbing.

“It’s important not to startle the skin. The French say you have to caress it back to life.”

I’d never heard words like that, but I liked the sound of her voice saying them, and the feel of the warm, soft cloth. (pages 87-88)



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  1. That book does sound intriguing! I have marked it as want to read on my Goodreads account. It is not often that I hear you so blown away by a book, Karen, so your review makes me want to read it all the more. I really like Sandra Campbell’s writing style from the excerpt you included in your review.

    I can see how Alice’s situation would have some parallels with Shylah’s. Hmm, so that makes you like Irma? In a way, you are doing the same thing for Shylah that Irma did for Alice. Mending the hurts and bad experiences of her young life and loving her back to life.

    How is Shylah doing now.? It has been a week since your last post and I was wondering how you two were doing. 🙂 I have been thinking about you and your precious puppy.

    1. Hi Susan,
      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m really interested in hearing what you think of Getting to Normal when you have a chance to read it. I hope you won’t be disappointed. It absolutely grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let go. I know that’s partly because of Shylah, but it’s also so well written and original in its treatment of a really challenging topic.
      Ah, Shylah. Thanks for asking about her too. I LOVE that puppy! I will be doing a big post about her in a couple of weeks but in the meantime am happy to report that she makes a little bit of progress every day.

      1. I am heading to the library tonight for Bee Night. Hubby’s guitar student has a father who is an apiarist. He is holding a talk about bees in the basement of the library tonight at 6 PM. I will have to check and see if this book is in the library or whether I will have to ask for an inter-library loan. We are planning on going a little early so I will have time to look for another book. I hope Getting To Normal is there. 🙂

        So good to hear that Shylah is making a little bit of progress every day. I can’t wait to read all about her progress in your post when you upload it. 🙂

        1. Thanks, Susan. Bee night sounds fascinating. It so much fun to learn new things – about anything and everything. I hope you enjoy, and hope you can get ahold of the book soon.

  2. I too am reading this book and love, love it. I just started the book and am over halfway through it. I fall asleep reading, therefore it usually takes me longer. I cannot believe a mother could treat a child like a toy and one she just wants to place somewhere safe, not to to be independent. She treats the sister almost as an equal to herself, then goes off and leaves both of them in circumstances she created. I can’t wait to see the ending.

  3. Thank you for this strong recommendation, Karen. It sounds like ‘Getting to Normal’ may be an excellent choice for one of my book clubs to read!
    I, too, like the parallels you suggest between this book and your caring for Shylah. I look forward to reading that post when it comes out!

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