Cara Sue Achterberg: We're All Just Practicing Normal
I live on a rural street. My neighbors are measured by miles, not feet. We have plenty of “head cases” (my husband’s term) out here. Paranoia, gun ownership, and chicken-keeping run high.
There have been lots of times when my children have said, “I wish we lived in a real neighborhood,” especially when they can find no one to play with beyond their siblings on a snow day. When they lament the lack of neighbors, I try to assure them they aren’t missing anything. And we have woods and streams and horses and fresh tomatoes!
Despite all those benefits, I have wondered how our lives would be different if we lived in a traditional neighborhood; I’ve indulged plenty of ‘what-if’ scenarios about life with matching vinyl siding, impromptu cookouts, and built-in community that comes from sharing lawns and bus stops.
Practicing Normal grew out of those what-ifs and the certainty that no matter who our neighbors are or what kind of houses are on our street, we can never know what is happening behind closed doors. Even when the doors cost a lot of money and carry prestige.
My original plan for the novel was to explore a group of four or five families, but as I got to know the Turners, I couldn’t look away. Jenna gives us peeks into some of the neighbor’s homes and hearts, but the real question becomes do we know what is happening in our own home, our own hearts?
When I was a kid, living in a suburban neighborhood, I spent my evenings playing Kick-the-Can and Hide-and-Seek with the other neighbor kids. By the time I was a teen, I knew everyone on my street. I knew whose moms had cupboards full of cheese curls, whose dads would yell at us if we walked across their lawns, and whose dogs might bite me. And yet, when I talk to friends who live in traditional neighborhoods these days, they rarely know their neighbors. Unless they serve on the homeowners association, they may never meet most of them. That’s the world of Pinewood Estates that I imagined.
Like the families who live on Pine Road, we assume many things about our neighbors, having never even set foot in their homes. I have a pretty loose writing style—I meet a few characters, toss in a dilemma and set a story in motion. I’ve heard it said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Until writing this book I didn’t really appreciate that phrase. As Practicing Normal unfolded, I was surprised again and again.
I truly enjoyed following along with Jenna as she began to implode the Turners' carefully protected world through her uncanny ability to break into her neighbor’s homes. I was charmed by Jenna’s brother JT, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and fascinated by her neighbor Cassie, a hospice nurse with seven cats. Her mother’s load was sometimes hard for me to bear—her selfless devotion to her own mother, a son she loves fiercely, and the dream of a happy family—all felt at times familiar and foreign. And as angry as I might have been with Everett, the philandering father, I still found some good in him.
And that’s the undercurrent of the entire novel—no person is entirely good or entirely bad. There is something redeeming in everyone, despite appearances. Families, neighborhoods, people, are rarely what they appear to be. Maybe that’s because none of us have it all figured out. Perhaps we are all just practicing normal.
Cara Sue Achterberg is the author of three novels, I'm Not Her, Girls' Weekend and Practicing Normal as well as the nonfiction books, Another Good Dog and Live Intentionally.