Book Review: We Are Totally Normal by Rahul Kanakia – A Messy, Complex & Powerful Exploration of What It Means To Question Yourself

review_totallynormal

Summary:

Nandan’s got a plan to make his junior year perfect. He’s going to make sure all the parties are chill, he’s going to smooth things over with his ex, and he’s going to help his friend Dave get into the popular crowd—whether Dave wants to or not. The high school social scene might be complicated, but Nandan is sure he’s cracked the code.

Then, one night after a party, Dave and Nandan hook up, which was not part of the plan—especially because Nandan has never been into guys. Still, Dave’s cool, and Nandan’s willing to give it a shot, even if that means everyone starts to see him differently.

But while Dave takes to their new relationship with ease, Nandan’s completely out of his depth. And the more his anxiety grows about what his sexuality means for himself, his friends, and his social life, the more he wonders whether he can just take it all back. But is breaking up with the only person who’s ever really gotten him worth feeling “normal” again?

CW’s review:

I received an ARC from the author. This does not influence my opinions of the book review in any way. 

In the Author’s Note of We Are Totally Normal, Rahul Kanakia, who is a trans queer woman, talks about how the book is one that’s deeply personal, one so “deeply rooted in [her] own shame and confusion and embarrassment over [her] own sexuality”.

If you plan to read We Are Totally Normal, or recently decided not to read it, you should understand this: We Are Totally Normal is not a cute YA romance. We Are Totally Normal is a story about the messiness of fluid identity, navigating high school social dynamics and hierarchies, and how labels can be overwhelming and shape our experiences – and not always in an affirming way.

I know that many readers who were excited to read this book had seen the marketing for this book, how this seemed like it was a YA romance between two desi boys. I think when most readers see the phrase ‘YA romance’, it comes with a lot of assumptions about what we can expect: something that is cute, something that is wholesome, something that is empowering, and something that is validating. And when the book – and the book cover – shows two desi boys with smiles on their face and a vibrant cover, I see why the assumptions are being made.

So here’s my book review of We Are Totally Normal, where I can hopefully offer my perspective, share my reading experience, and maybe give you some more realistic expectations before you dive into this book.

We Are Totally Normal follows Nandan, an Indian American teen who develops a confusing on-and-off, will-they-won’t-they relationship with his friend, Dave. The issue is that Nandan has never perceived himself to be anything but straight. Though the story is largely character-driven, the story of We Are Totally Normal is driven with Nandan’s fraught exploration of his own sexuality – and what the implications of his sexuality has on his social relationships and social life.

An insightful take on social ecosystems in high school

Before I delve into why fluid identity is such a central theme in this book and why, despite its messiness and ugliness, I think it was done very well, you should know a little bit more about Nandan to understand his character arc and his relationship with his fluid sexual identity. When you begin reading We Are Totally Normal, you may find that it difficult to understand Nandan as a character. He doesn’t seem to be his own person, doesn’t have any distinct qualities that make him stand out. But as I kept reading, I realised: that was kind of the point. You see, Nandan is a teen who has found a way to embed himself in the social ecosystem of high school, not because he’s a ‘leader’ or a ‘follower’, but because he surrounds himself with people that do have social capital (or, people that ‘matter’). Nandan, you realise, is a character that cares very deeply about the social hierarchies of school – who is hanging out with who, what the implications of hanging out with this person is or who is going to which party. Nandan doesn’t have any genuine relationships. The people that he hangs out with aren’t exactly people you would call his ‘friends’ – they are people who give him a sense of belonging, so that he can be a part of something and someone.

So you may think: Wow, that seems like it sucks? And yes! It does! When I read YA stories about characters with close friends who tell each other their secrets and are vulnerable to each other and know each other right down to their soul – I frankly cannot relate. For me, high school and its relationships were shallow. I had a group that I belonged to, people who I hung out with because being part of a social group, a protective barrier, even though I didn’t connect with them emotionally, was better than being alone. And so this story is honest with how some people do stay friends purely because belonging is intoxicating, and being someone who may matter (even by association) is even more so.

That’s certainly the case for Nandan. He hangs out with a group of boys that don’t necessarily care what he thinks or are interested in getting to know him beyond the façade he puts on. He stays ‘friends’ with his ex-hookup, Avani, because it makes him interesting and makes him feel like someone important in the high school ecosystem. Is that shallow and ingenious? Sure! But this is who Nandan is: he shapes his identity and his perception of himself by the people around him, what they think of him, and the opportunities that these connections have. In all, the relationships in this book are complex, perhaps a little manipulative, but never malignant. So many of the characters in this book say awful and hurtful things – not for shock-value, but because teenagers (and people in general) say insensitive things sometimes that have understated effects on others – and I think that this book candidly portrays how relationships are sometimes incredibly superficial and how they may be nonetheless important to someone.

(Be warned though: some of the things that are said in this book are sexist, ableist, and anti-queer. If you are sensitive to that language, that is perfectly okay and perhaps this book is not for you. However, I can assure that the things said in this book aren’t trying to reinforce oppressive power structures, but instead explores the ways that language can have an impact on someone’s identity and how they construe, present, and think about themselves.)

Not all relationships in high school are about these lifelong friendships. For Nandan, high school isn’t about getting into college. In Nandan’s story, high school is a social system, one he is incredibly conscious of and subscribes to and cares deeply about. Moreover, Nandan is a person who craves social connection deeply. The writing in We Are Totally Normal doesn’t offer much clear nor explicit descriptions of what he thinks about the relationships. Rather, something that I loved about We Are Totally Normal was that it presents highly engaging dialogue between characters and lets you draw your own conclusions about the character’s motivations and what they are thinking. At times, We Are Totally Normal and its depictions of how people talk, the high intensity and the quick pace, brought me back to high school where I was struggling to stay afloat in the overwhelming ocean of social interaction and trying to understand what it all meant.

On Nandan and the messiness of his questioning identity

Knowing this, then, let’s talk about Nandan and his relationship with his sexual identity.

We Are Totally Normal has one of the best representations of questioning identity that I have read. I don’t know what it’s like to ‘have always known’ my sexual identity. I don’t know what it’s like to have that epiphany that made me realise that, ‘oh yes, that’s me’. What I do know, though, is what it feels like to constantly questioning myself, to oscillate between different ideas of myself, and grasping and holding onto a variety of labels because none seemed to fit me comfortably. (I’ll return to labels later on). Questioning is tough, reader. Questioning is not pretty; it is not something that can be packaged well. And for me, it was years of so much anti-queer thoughts and feelings that I am still working through today. Moreover, questioning was not an identity that I necessarily… wanted? People who are secure in their sexual identity don’t see you as valid and do not trust you. What if I told everyone I was questioning and later realised I actually was straight in the end?

I’ve said this already, but I’ll say this again: Nandan’s journey with his own sexual identity is not linear. It is messy, it ‘progresses’, and just when you think he will realise and finally be content with who he is, cognitive dissonance kicks in and he ‘regresses’. We Are Totally Normal is told from Nandan’s perspective and it is a narrative that is fraught with so much conflict – so so much internal conflict. At times it is frustrating, at times it is absolutely heart-breaking, and at times there are moments of clarity. Nandan struggles with a lot of shame and fear and embarrassment and self-consciousness. The clever thing about this book is that Kanakia’s writing, and in extension Nandan’s voice, is incisive, sharp, and astute. Though, astute as Nandan may be in his observations of the subtle shifts in social relationships that he has with others, Nandan is ironically blind to what is going on within himself.

Something that becomes very clear across the book is that Nandan is in denial. This is exacerbated by his internalised misogyny, internalised toxic masculinity, and the social pressures that come with changing such an intimate and deeply rooted part of how you have always understood yourself — and how this may be incongruous to queer identity. The writing was incredibly clever as well – Nandan spends a great deal of time and energy trying to convince himself that he isn’t queer. There are times where it feels like he’s breaking the fourth wall and is trying to convince you, the reader, that he isn’t queer. There are many instances in the book where he grapples with his internalised anti-queer feelings. Contemplating queer identity and the idea of possibly being queer makes Nandan incredibly vulnerable – and for a person that has structured his entire identity around the social relationships that he has with people, how people perceive him, and his place within the hierarchical structures of his social group – that terrifies him.

Indeed, fear, and fear of change and how people will see him and how he sees himself, governs a lot of Nandan’s life. So much, that when he makes a meaningful and emotional connection with an out gay person, Nandan later pushes him away because he feels he has come too close to something that makes him feel vulnerable and insecure and uncertain. He says awful and hateful things about himself. He makes excuses for his queer identity – and yes, they are problematic excuses! Yes, some of the things he says may hit close to home for queer readers because it may resonate with some of the things that people have said about us or what we’ve told ourselves. Moreover, the ways that Nandan hates himself are more subtle. Nandan’s self-hatred isn’t overt self-loathing; his self-hatred involves distancing himself from things that feel authentic and meaningful, engaging in destructive behaviours and ‘acting out’, and drinking to numb the thoughts and confusion that plague his conscience.

I firmly believe that the context of Nandan’s self-hatred is important and the things that he says about himself and queer identity aren’t about spewing hateful messages about being queer. (And yet, there are so many instances in the book where you know that Nandan doesn’t truly believe in what he’s saying, but he feels compelled to say it anyway.) This book is not plainly and simply anti-queer. As challenging as it was to read this at times, to see that extent of self-loathing that manifests as denial and lying to yourself – I understood Nandan. I really got him and how he felt, and I’ve never seen this level of deep exploration of a character’s complex emotions about their identity before.

Let’s talk about Nandan and Dave’s relationship

Which then brings me to Dave, Nandan’s Indian-American love interest.

Dave is Nandan’s friend. Dave is an awkward person, where Nandan is seemingly more confident. But Dave is also more sure of himself and understands himself, whereas Nandan doesn’t understand who he is at all. When the two hook up, this opens a whole can of worms for Nandan. Despite having feelings for Dave – feelings he cannot quite name – Nandan is in denial that he is queer. He lies to himself and tells himself over and over that he’s straight and just hooked up with a friend. And yet, he feels drawn to Dave, because something about Dave and their relationship feels right and feels good, even if he won’t say it out loud. At times, Nandan is horrible to Dave and, worse, Dave lets him be horrible because Dave feels inexplicably enamoured by Nandan. Their relationship is as frustrating as Nandan’s character arc – there are times where they share intimacy and feel connected with one another and genuinely enjoy their company, and there are also times where Nandan’s insecurity and anxiety over the changes and things that happen in his life compel him to push Dave away.

Throughout the book, a significant portion of the story is about Dave and Nandan’s ‘will they, won’t they’ relationship paralleled with Nandan’s inability to reconcile and come to terms with his identity. Dave adores Nandan, loves the way that Nandan makes him feel, but Nandan isn’t as sure. A quick interjection: something I never really related to when reading some books with romance stories was how sparks flew and how things ‘always felt right’. Sure, it’s the fluffiness of those stories and those moments that remind us of why love is beautiful that makes us feel good. But, We Are Totally Normal is not a story that sets out to make us feel good. Rather, We Are Totally Normal tries to be vulnerable, honest, and shows the ugly in coming to terms with who you are. For instance, the physical and sexual relationship between Dave and Nandan is sometimes awkward – but not wrong, either. Maybe it’s just me, but physical intimacy isn’t always fireworks and fuzzy feelings. Sometimes it’s weird and underwhelming and just kinda meh. Although Dave seems to enjoy the physical aspects of their relationship, Nandan, again, isn’t as sure. I mean, isn’t something that people go on and on about is that sexual intimacy isn’t purely physical? That it’s emotional too? So in the context that Nandan is confused about his identity and he feels ashamed and feels self-hatred, the fact that he sometimes doesn’t enjoy sex with Dave – and is at times physically repulsed when he touches or kisses Nandan – is more of a reflection of how Nandan is projecting his feelings about himself onto his relationship.

Here is a little quote from my ARC of We Are Totally Normal: ‘I suddenly had this weird urge to kiss him. But no, that was fucked! I was the most confused human being on earth!’

Also, a very important clarification that I want to make (and has spoilers): Nandan isn’t straight. The point of the book is that he never was. Towards the end of the book, Nandan, after coming out as gay, tells everyone that he is straight and that he was never gay. However, from my reading of the book, it was very clear and not ambiguous (from the developments of the story) that Nandan was not truly straight. Rather, him calling himself straight again was a manifestation of his anxiety and his inability to cope with how people perceived and talked about him. A variety of interactions lead up to this moment – instances of discomfort and moments of struggle of having an intimate and close connection with Dave – but even after he decides he is straight, the following chapters show that he is confused. He still hasn’t found peace with himself, even after believing he is straight.

Moreover, We Are Totally Normal is indisputably a queer book. First, Nandan is queer and the story is how he is confused, hurt, and hates himself. Second, I think that We Are Totally Normal is a fantastic albeit potentially discomforting story about questioning. The story is messy, yes, but that doesn’t make this book bad. The behaviours depicted in the story and Nandan are problematic – but that doesn’t make the book problematic. But I think the messy experiences depicted in this story, especially when the author is queer, is a trans woman, and is Indian-American like Nandan, are incredibly valid. Third and most clear: Nandan ends up with Dave in the end. He is not straight in the end. Rather, the book ends with Nandan being more comfortable with his fluid sexual identity without a distinct label and while doing his best to be happy in the moment.

Labels and how they can sometimes box us in

I believe labels, identifying yourself by labels, and finding community through your labels are incredibly important and valid experiences. I understand why labels are important to people and to communities. But I think We Are Totally Normal brings up some really interesting and insightful perspectives on labels, and how sometimes they don’t work for everyone.

However, We Are Totally Normal really resonated with me and my feelings towards labels. Earlier, I mentioned that I was questioning. And to an extent, that is true. But, last Pride I found labels that described me the best. It did not describe me perfectly, but it did describe me well enough. I didn’t announce it or anything, because a small part of me still wasn’t sure. But what does describe me more accurately is that I just do not feel comfortable with labels. A lot of this is tied to how I feel like queerness is still an incredibly White space – I have never felt welcomed in these spaces. Even though I know there are incredible Asian queer champions out there, I’ve just never felt like I belonged. Whether that is part of my internalised messy feelings or whether the queer space truly isn’t wholly welcoming – I don’t know. So I distance myself from the queer umbrella. Not because I dislike queer communities, but I just have never felt that feeling of ‘home’.

While reading We Are Totally Normal, I got the feeling that Nandan felt the same way. I think that something that may be overlooked in the discussions about this book is that Nandan is Indian-American and queer. Queer people of colour experience and live queerness in ways that are very different to White people; ask most queer people of colour, and they will tell you that our experiences are… (dare I use the word, even though I’ve used it a million times in this review) messy. In my anecdotal experience, labels can be extremely difficult for queer people of colour. And I feel like that’s what Nandan struggles with a lot over the course of the story – he feels immense distance from the idea and label of ‘queer’ and ‘being queer’ and that emotional distance seeps into how his identity is construed and understood.

I think Nandan’s experience with coming out is less so about coming into something that is certain and affirming, but more of something where he experiments because it felt right in one moment. He experiments with the identity and how it fits on him and sees how it will fly with other people. But, when Nandan comes out as gay, he notices how it changes the way people talk to him, think about him, and behave around him. He observes how people make the connection between ‘Nandan’ and ‘gay’ and draw their own conclusions about who he is. He notices how his friends suddenly treat him differently – they either distance themselves or they want to be closer to him – and how his place within the high school ecosystem shifts with his new label. Furthermore, Nandan is incredibly cognizant of how, suddenly, he is bombarded with expectations and stereotypes of how he ought to think, be, and speak since coming out as ‘gay’. And he finds this overwhelming and discomforting.

Although Nandan explores the experience of using the label ‘gay’ and how it feels for him, he ultimately feels incredibly alienated by it. For Nandan, labels feel like something that boxes him and feels like a commitment with strings attached that he either isn’t entirely prepared for or don’t feel authentic to him. Over time and as relationships begin to develop and change, the whole experience of ‘being gay’ and being the ‘gay’ boy becomes overwhelming for him – and I think that’s why he snaps and decides that ‘he doesn’t like guys anymore’ and ‘is straight’. Not necessarily because he firmly believes he was never gay and is straight, but because it becomes too much to bear. In essence, Nandan is further confused about who he is – because his experience of ‘being gay’ didn’t feel right. And because Nandan is a coward, he tries to play off a genuinely earnest and vulnerable experience as a ‘gay experience’ to regain control of life and his friends’ scattered perceptions of him.

MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED

So is Nandan’s experience with exploring ‘gay’ identity messy? Absolutely. It is fraught with tension and angst and shame. Which is why I think it is really difficult to discuss this book and why it is easy to misconstrue specific details of this book without addressing and explaining its wider context. Is Nandan ‘problematic’? Arguably, yeah. Is this book problematic, though? I really do not think so. I think a lot of what this book is about – the relationships that it depicts, a desi teen’s struggle with sexual identity, and the intricate and unpleasant feelings that this books fearlessly explores – come from a place that understands how painful it is to not only not know yourself but to deny something so integral to yourself. Human experience is so complex and unique to one another. And I feel like We Are Totally Normal gives room to how our personal stories can be so different and haphazard and arbitrary – and also critiques the idea of ‘normal’ and a singular experience.

Is this book for everyone though? No, I don’t think so, and that is okay. As I said in my preliminary and shorter review on Goodreads, this is not a book that everyone will enjoy. The writing may be hard to follow for some readers because the dialogue is intense and leaves little room for breath (which, conversely, I think, cleverly captures how hard Nandan tries to keep up). This is not a cute YA romance. This is a book that gets truly ugly sometimes – but in a way with the utmost self-awareness and with good humour – and requires you to read between the lines to uncover its meaning and its essence. As a consequence, because this book does leave some things open to interpretation, I think there will inevitably discussion on how the book is interpreted. (But, going from the Author’s Note that I mentioned at the beginning of the review, I’m inclined to believe that my interpretation has a basis.)

More importantly, We Are Totally Normal is a book that will understand. If you ever questioned who you were, hated yourself because you were scared of a truth about yourself, and felt confused about love and relationships – this is a book that will understand.

Personally, I really loved this book. This book was incredibly powerful for me, resonant in its harsh truths and its ugliness – because I saw part of my experience reflected in this messy wonderful book. This was a book that I could not forget, long after I finished it. The writing is so so clever, more than it leads on to be, and so thoughtful. More for me, this book felt so incredibly real. It is incredibly profound, and doesn’t try hard to be either. This is a story about a person’s truth, in all it’s messiness, it’s ugliness. It may not fit the conventional queer narrative, but I felt its authenticity, its earnestness – and I think that’s why We Are Totally Normal has a place in YA queer literature.

Goodreads | Blackwells | Indiebound | Book Depository | My short review on Goodreads


Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: An Indian-American teen begins an intimate yet hesitant relationship with another Indian-American teen, and tries to figure out his sexual identity along the way.

Genre: YA contemporary

Trigger/content warning: anti-gay, internalised anti-queer feelings, ableist and sexist slurs, sex (not graphic), alcohol consumption

7 thoughts on “Book Review: We Are Totally Normal by Rahul Kanakia – A Messy, Complex & Powerful Exploration of What It Means To Question Yourself

  1. What a great review, CW! I would love to pick up this book but I don’t think my heart is ready for the problematic behaviours of the characters. Hopefully, someday I can. I do love that the book delves into the confusion and journey of someone who is questioning. I don’t think there are many books that deal with that.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for your review. I feel like so much of this “drama” was taken out of context and distorted into something it wasn’t. I don’t think theres anything wrong with reading a review and realizing that maybe a book is not for you. I love this review its so well written, descriptive and I can tell it’s coming from the heart. After reading multiple reviews I don’t think it is for me and thats okay. I related to a lot of what you said. I was questioning still am actually for a long time and never felt welcome in queer spaces. I tried to enter queer spaces as a questioning ally and had a similar experience. People didn’t trust me or see me as part of the community some people were actively hateful and rude. It was not a fun expernice. I don’t blame people for being distrusting of allys and I understand where its coming from but it was painful. Right now this book seems like it would trigger me terribly so I don’t want to read it. But maybe one day I will be in a good enough head space to endure it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a detailed and thoughtful review. I’d admit it, when I first saw word about how this book has problematic elements (which I initially just saw as a problematic story entirely, which I realize now was wrong of me), I immediately took it off my tbr because I didn’t have the whole picture. Now that I have a bit of a better idea of what this book consists of, I honestly don’t know if I’ll pick it up. I’m going to give myself some time and space and if I pick the book up and enjoy it, that’s great. If I decide not to, that’s absolutely fine as well. Again, I so appreciate you taking the time to share a bit more of the whole picture with this book and I really enjoyed getting to read your experience with reading it. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks so much for diving so deeply. I’ve had the book on my TBR for a while, and it’s one of those highly anticipated reads, so I’ve been pretty dismayed by the dialogue surrounding its messages. In particular, the title is getting a bashing for the erroneous take that “normal” is a stand-in for “straight.” And I really wish readers would understand the difference between problematic characters and problematic content. These unnuanced takes continue to make YA Twitter a toxic playground.

    I can’t wait to read this and your insightful review has made me more determined to plug the crap out of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What a great review CW! I know that Nandan’s perspective is one I struggle with understanding and one I’m trying to find more empathy for. I’m one of those people who my nonheterosexuality was very obvious to myself and others from a very young age.

    Thank you for your well thought out and insightful review. I will definitely be checking this out… especially since it supports a fellow transwoman!

    Like

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