An adult character in Normal People Don't Live like This, Dylan Landis's lean, beguiling novel in stories, is a synesthete. "It means the senses work in pairs," she explains to Leah Levinson, the teenager at the center of the book. "It's a gift." Leah can appreciate this—for her, objects and words have their own dreamy weight—but her sensitivity is a product of adolescence, not neurology.
Teenage girls make for compelling fictional subjects, and portraying them honestly requires a certain grit. In her best moments, Landis doesn't flinch, lavishing attention on Leah's obsessive-compulsiveness, the jumbled contents of her underwear drawer, and a friend's sudden miscarriage. In ten concise chapters that can be read as stand-alone stories or chronological snapshots, we experience the world of 1970s New York through Leah; her mother, Helen; and a few secondary characters. Each chapter offers a vivid, fleeting glimpse of a life; in the spaces between stories, losses are suffered quietly, and triumphs go unseen.
The characters' perspectives tend to complement one another, but sometimes they compete. The first chapter homes in on Rainey Royal—a troubled classmate who will become Leah's tormentor—lying in Central Park, her father's best friend writhing on top of her. Intense and evocative, it's also a misleading opening salvo. Rainey recedes soon after, having set an unsettling tone for a group of stories not her own.
Leah is relatively innocent, rehearsing a brand of rebelliousness she can't quite live up to and evaluating potential allies with an eye that's equal parts strategic and romantic. Her best friends are two defiant sisters whose laid-back mother and messy home make them look enviably liberated. Ambitiously, Leah befriends Angeline Yost, "slut" and source of vicious rumors. "Leah loves Angeline. But occasionally she feels as if Angeline has backed her up to a wall and is siphoning air out of her lungs with a rubber tube," Landis writes. It's not the first time a relationship leaves Leah light-headed and gasping, and it won't be the last.
Inevitable arguments with her mother about cigarettes and clothes mask deeper tensions. Helen, an ambitious interior decorator, is anxious, possibly anorexic, and reeling quietly from the death of Leah's father. Amid her worry, she heals spaces with chic furniture and bolts of cloth. Landis, who has authored books about design, relishes bringing interiors to life, but her detailed settings can overwhelm what happens in them.
The final sections—in which a college-age Leah is set loose in Paris, and Helen has her way with an old room in a women's welfare hotel—are as elegantly written as the rest of the book, if less precisely observed. Against the vibrant backdrops of the Louvre and robin's-egg-blue paint, Leah and Helen shed some of their appealing specificity. Living less like "normal" people, both women are less themselves.