What is it like to know you are “slow,” that you will forever be cut off from taking advantage of what society offers its productive—and even not so productive—adults? And what is it like to be the parent of such a person? These are the experiences that Karen Bender reveals in her exquisitely perceived domestic drama, Like Normal People (Mariner Books, $13.50). We come to know what it is like to be Lena Rose—who is functional enough to make it through a special education program that will coax her toward graduation from high school, but does not always remember to brush her teeth. And we know what it is like to be the mother of such child.
Ella and Lou, Lena’s parents, are initially reluctant to recognize that their firstborn child will not achieve the most modest of their dreams for her. Once they understand that Lena is mentally retarded, though, Ella and Lou enter her world to give her what she has the right, as their beloved offspring, to expect. And when she grows into a woman, living at home well into adulthood, Lena surprises her parents by reaching out for one of the most sanctioned privileges of the “normal” young adult, having a romantic relationship.
Bender has chosen a subject whose handling is a virtual land mine of potential excesses—sentimentality, an over wrought sense of tragedy, hyper-tenderness. She has deftly avoided all these, and instead presented us with a tale of love between imperfect people, one we can truly believe.
Patricia Grossman is the author of three novels. Her most recent is Unexpected Child, Alyson Books, 2000.