LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE

FICTION BY KAREN BENDER

Houghton Mifflin Company
ISBN: 0-395-94515-1
Karen Bender's debut novel, Like Normal People, delivers an account of three generations of women: Ella Rose, her mentally handicapped daughter, Lena, and Lena's twelve-year-old niece, Shelley. The interactions and histories of these women are related over the course of 24 hours. Ms. Bender successfully and dramatically renders her characters' emotions as Ella and Shelley visit Lena at Panorama Village in Culver City, California. As the plot thickens, the reader sympathizes with the characters throughout each turning event. 
      The compassion and generosity of Like Normal People is demonstrated through Ella's love for her mentally handicapped daughter and her struggle to free the tight grip she has contended with throughout motherhood. Ella struggles with letting go as Lena's marriage to Bob, a man with a similar handicap, has allowed Lena to become an adult who lives in a childlike world. The complexity of the novel demonstrates the one-day trip that allows Ella to realize her daughter's autonomy. 
      Lena has set fire to her room at Panorama Village, which instigates Ella and Shelley's visit. As Ella talks with Mrs. Lowenstein about Lena, Shelley and Lena are allowed to go out for doughnuts, but instead hop on a bus, arriving at a beach in Southern California. Ella's search for them leads the reader into a past and present account of her life, as well as the lives of her daughters, Lena and Vivien, and Vivien's daughter, Shelley. Also included are details of Ella's marriage to shoe salesman, Lou, who is now deceased. The interesting interconnection of adversary and love lead the reader to the heartwarming and paradoxical end. 
      Although the novel's substance and characters are intriguing, areas of the book seem forced,and heavy with empty and weak metaphors. These parts are briefly jarring, withdrawing its reader momentarily from crucial and pertinent events. Nevertheless, the strong generosity and compassion of the characters are enough to make one overlook the few weak aspects of the novel. 
      Bender's debut novel is successful, and the strongest aspect is her rendering and exploration of the human components of true, heartfelt emotion.