When we first meet Lena Rose, the ‘mildly retarded’ heroine and whirlwind centre of Karen Bender’s novel, it is her wedding anniversary, and she has set fire to her room at the residential home known optimistically as Panorama Village. Lena’s mother, Ella, has been summoned to deal with the situation and plead Lena’s case to Mrs Lowenstein, the home’s director, in the hope of averting her daughter’s expulsion. The exact motive for Lena’s arson is unknown, although it may be a protest at her husband Bob’s recent and untimely death. Understanding the importance of making a good impression, Ella brings a ‘strategic’ box of See’s candy for Mrs Lowenstein and wears a pair of bone-coloured Italian leather shoes. Ella, too, is a widow, and to avoid coming on her own, she brings her 12-year-old granddaughter, Shelley, who has developed a close friendship with Lena. On the pretext of getting coffee and doughnuts, Shelley and Lena flee Panorama Village and board a bus whose destination they don’t know. Over the course of the day, during which Lena keeps expecting her husband to appear for their wedding anniversary and Shelley explores a new identity as a sexual being in an adult world, Ella, waiting at Panorama Village, revisits her life and wonders who she may become.
Ella’s story follows the familiar trajectory of second-generation Americans. The product of her parents’ reunion in the New World, she grows up in tenement housing in Dorchester, Massachusetts. She speaks English without an accent, and for this reason is her father’s favourite child. Her older sisters, essentially foreigners, torment her with stories of their dead sister Eva, whose baby tooth is kept in a box in the closet. As a young woman Ella is hired as a salesgirl in a large department store, selling jade animals and fancy lamps to rich Bostonians. Here she meets Lou, who to her confusion courts her and wins her over with his way of belonging in the world. To complete their transformation into full-blown Americans, Lou suggests they move to California.
This, they decide, will allow them to become better and more authentic versions of themselves. Lou fantasises about being a ‘flashy dresser’, the owner of an ‘assortment of red shirts’. Freedom to him also involves small acts of recklessness: ‘When he was in a jaunty mood, he tossed trash out the car and seemed to think this was a daring move.’ Ella’s idealised self can make whipped cream desserts with French names. But when they arrive in California they are at a loss, and adopt ‘a crooked, raw arrogance’ in response. Finally, they find a home in the San Fernando Valley, Lou opens a shoe-shop and Ella becomes pregnant.
Lena is born with a large bump on her head that bruises and slowly disappears. Ella imagines glamorous futures for her as an actress, a fluent French-speaker, a preparer of fine European foods. It is not until Lena is three that one of Lou’s customers, a woman Ella won’t forget, calls their attention to Lena’s condition.
The woman suddenly looked intent. Lena’s smile was the shape of an orange slice. Perhaps that was what made it not quite right; it was like the smile of a baby seal. Ella had never looked at Lena’s smile this way. Lena twisted down from the chair to the floor and walked around the room with her peculiar walk; it was like a drunken hop.
Lou retreats behind a cheerful façade, calling his wife ‘an assortment of pet names he’d heard in movies’, while Ella finds a book called God’s Special Children at the library and draws comfort from the fact that her daughter does not have a cleft palate or fins for arms. She realises that Lena would be worth more in a world where other children didn’t exist, and, serving them in the shoe-shop, begins to fear the strength of her desire: ‘She wished so powerfully for their disappearance that when she crouched to fit shoes on them, she was afraid to touch their tiny, outstretched feet.’ Lou’s denial drives a powerful wedge between them; Ella sees herself as Lena’s only protector, and this identity begins to define her.
From the beginning, however, Lena is the ruler of her universe. In her special class at La Rosita Elementary School, she is raucous and bullies her classmates; she is ferocious, and the other children ‘drifted away from her like windswept leaves’. When Ella comes to meet her after school, she seems a ‘tiny, forlorn god, sucking her fist’. By the time Ella is pregnant with her second daughter, Vivien, she has become immunised against hope, and her fantasies about Vivien feel like illicit dreams.
Vivien will eventually become a self-sufficient adult, but as a child, she seems preternaturally bound to Lena, who dominates her and shapes her view of the world. On Vivien’s first day at school, Lena walks with her sister, pointing out landmarks: ‘This is my purple school tree.’ Later, Lena becomes more desperate: ‘One day, Ella found her robbing Vivien from her classmates during recess; she was tugging Vivien to an empty area of the playground.’ It is only when Vivien learns to dance that she seems to reclaim her sense of self.
As a young woman, Vivien is as beautiful as a movie star, causing her mother to buy her ‘expensive, absurdly sexy dresses’. When she walks through the house in her swimsuit, her father has to ‘spout elaborate theories about Eisenhower’ to cover his embarrassment. She is a successful semi-professional ballroom dancer, marries a Reform rabbi, and in no time at all has overtaken her mother, becoming one of the ladies who lunch. Ella regards her daughter’s natural elegance with a mixture of discomfort and pride; more disturbing, once Lena goes to Panorama Village, is the implied transfer of power that has Vivien placating Mrs Lowenstein, taking responsibility for her sister’s misdemeanours.
It is a tacit assumption of the non-handicapped world that retarded people will always remain children; that while their bodies may mature, they cannot expect to experience romantic love. When Lena hits puberty, Ella observes her development, but denies its potential: ‘Lena’s breasts were beautiful, like small tulips, but Ella understood that they had no clear purpose. They would never, she thought, be kissed by a man; they would never be suckled by an infant.’ At 21, Lena announces her desire for a husband, prompting a disastrous run-in with a matchmaker and hilarious cosmetics lessons at the Wilshire Charm School. When Bob, her soul mate, unexpectedly appears, the two begin their courtship immediately, and riff on each other with absolute joy and a rebellious glee, filling Ella with panic. Bob is half an hour early for their first date, and wastes no time; he looks at Lena ‘frankly, as though he had a right to her’. Their developing relationship provides the most exhilarating section of the novel, and far from patronising their sexual chemistry Bender makes it seem enviable. After their wedding in Las Vegas, Ella observes them in the pool:
Lena and Bob tumbled and splashed, cheerful, muffled bellows rising from their mouths. Their slick arms smacked the waves and swooped under the water, and their faces butted and kissed, but it was not exactly clear what they were doing to each other. The crowd around the pool was riveted. Ella felt the backs of her knees tense. She was just about to stand up when Lena swung herself out of the pool. She glittered, the water shining on her hair, and walked back to her chaise.
‘I would like to share a room with Bob,’ Lena said.
While Lena seems sure of what she wants and what she is owed, Vivien’s daughter, Shelley, is paralysed by matters of identity and her place in the world. She has difficulty understanding the changing social codes and shifting loyalties of adolescence, and even her parents seem to speak in a strange code. Her friends have ditched her, co-ordinated their outfits, and left her to sit alone at lunch. Bender is very good at describing her pain and the bizarre pack behaviour of pre-teen girls: ‘They spoke in darting, urgent whispers, erupting into laughter that sounded like shrieks of pain. Their old selves had been discarded, forgotten.’ Lena and Bob offer unconditional acceptance, and with them Shelley explores different identities, dressing outrageously in tiaras and high heels for her visits to Panorama Village. They imagine living in a grand house together and having parties, and their fantasies recall Lou and Ella’s idealised California selves. Bob’s death shatters the cocoon that their friendship has wound around Shelley, who worries that she might have been responsible for ‘the accident’ that killed him.
Lena herself has an ambiguous understanding of Bob’s death. She remembers his funeral but waits for him on their anniversary, anxious that he may have stopped loving her. Her expectations do not seem unrealistic so much as multilayered, as if they were quite reasonable, given her love for him. It is a way of thinking that isn’t out of place in her family. Shelley is young enough to believe that kissing results in a sort of reciprocal telepathy and that love entails total understanding, a belief only partially undermined by a dangerous encounter with a bodybuilder called Ambrosio. After Lou’s death, Ella conjures up a fictitious extramarital affair on Lou’s part so that she will miss him less, yet still stocks the fridge with his favourite foods, hoping she will open it later to find they’ve been eaten. Eventually, Lena’s love for Bob gives way to a mature and delicate grief, and in the end it is she who provides Shelley’s absolution.
Like Normal People is a very funny novel. The physical world Bender presents is lush with detail, and 1970s California appears as a surreal dream, full of colour and light. A less skilful writer could have made this an awful tale of eccentricities and wacky foibles – or worse, a message-driven melodrama – but Karen Bender shows respect for her characters, and keeps highly charged emotional situations from disintegrating into chaos. Lena is a three-dimensional heroine, by turns demure and flirtatious, manipulative and raging. She is the star of this novel, although Ella, in true matriarchal style, claims the last word with her musings on mortality and how she will continue to affect those she leaves behind. But it is Lena, in her red sneakers and housecoat, who will stay in the mind.