Reader Responses to the Promise of a Normal Life: A Novel

This books is a perfect gem. (Even the size, color and weight of the hard copy feels like a gold coin or a satisfying stone in your hand.)

I admire so many things. First, the sentences are beautifully crafted, with striking, cinematic moments in many of them. Second, the entire frame through which we experience the story is intriguing; a bit mysterious and absolutely suited to the plot.

We view the world through the eyes of a passive young woman who slowly grows into a person with agency, intuition, and courage. We never learn her name, and she is telling a story in the past. The scenes jump backwards and forwards in time, just as memory does. The present moment in time is imbued with color, music, and the narrator’s own hyper-focus.

The result is that we are hemmed in by her limitations; we expand when she expands. This process felt like a wonderful unfolding for me, as the reader. I highly recommend this novel for anyone interested in strong women and how they emerge. And anyone interested in narrative voice, the diverse ways it can be constructed. But mostly, read it for fun, and the pull of Gibson’s sentences.

  • Kristen Fogdall, poet

The writing in this was so real that I felt completely immersed in the story. even though the narrator remains unnamed, I felt like I knew her extremely well based on the glimpses from here and there from her life. These glimpses made me appreciate the narrator’s development from childhood through to navigating her adulthood. I really liked scenes that included her mother Polina, because they gave such a thorough look into the complexity of her character & their relationship. the novel felt poetic in a way, which must be due to the author’s background as a poet.

  • Juulia

I found this novel to be transportive but suffocating. The unnamed Jewish-American narrator is the child of a first-generation doctor and lawyer, questioning her place in her family and the world in the 1960s. Her mother is both cold and inattentive while simultaneously controlling. When meeting her future mother-in-law, she “was struck by how much Tom’s mother seemed to admire her son. I didn’t know how to understand a mother who made room for her child’s maturity.” The Promise of a Normal Life takes place in a world of privilege, but the narrator is unsure of every step. She drifts from her family home to her marital home in a haze, but like many women of her time, she can’t quite put her finger on why she’s unhappy or even decide what she wants. The author’s poetry background shines through in this novel’s writing.

I recommend this to someone looking for a quiet read, or as part of the publisher’s summary suggests “for readers of Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, and Katie Kitamura, the indelible journey of a quiet young woman—the ‘silent person’ in the Seder—finding her way.”

  • Rhiannon Johnson

Like living another life, at once both strange and familiar…

This novel, told through a series of first-person vignettes, is so rich in dreamy, sensory language that I lost myself, pulled effortlessly along by in the narrator’s off-kilter, no-filter point of view. In flashes back and forward from the late 50s and 80s, we zigzag from college trips abroad, to an insular childhood (complete with Elsie, the Black cook in the kitchen), to marriage with a tall Midwesterner with “eyes like blue crystal,” to an entangling lover’s triangle in Boston, and much more.

The book hovers in liminal spaces: a sultry Maryland between the North and South; the “otherness” of a quirkily observed Judaism; a solitary wandering through Norwegian tourist attractions (when her new husband retreats to a monastic fishing cottage); a California backyard where roses bloom year-round.

Looming throughout is the powerful presence of the narrator’s mother, Polina, who expands the novel’s scope back in time to the 1920s and who has the steely nerve and myopic, single-mindedness to have defied conventions to become a medical doctor in the 30s. From her daughter’s blinkered point of view, Polina’s overbearing and bossy self-regard is a cloying cloud of heavy perfume and Chesterfields, and trail of lipstick prints on cigarettes, glasses, and cocktail napkins.

The dawning of a new way of engaging with the world is both subtle and hopeful. We want to know what happens next.

  • Linda

What happens to someone growing up with a temperament that’s intuitive, sensory-oriented, lyrical, almost mystical? How does she fare in an environment like post-World-War-II upper-middle-class America in which a conventional “normalcy” is assumed and the (glorious) facts of natural human diversity are overlooked? Rebecca Kaiser Gibson’s The Promise of a Normal Life raises these questions vividly and painfully. We follow her unnamed narrator from childhood toward midlife as she contends with a brittle, bruised mother, cultural and gender constraints, and a series of artfully drawn narcissistic men. With no help coming from others, she struggles even to articulate her own experience to herself. The wonder of Gibson’s novel is its subtlety: in sneaky ways, she leads the reader into the heart of the protagonist’s dissociation and confusion and then just leaves us there with her for long stretches. The result is a narrative that’s gripping and at times frightening, as we can’t be certain when or how or if the protagonist will recognize and exercise the agency and power she does possess. This book aches beautifully.

  • Richard Smith, author, therapist

The unnamed narrator of this novel is a lost woman. In many ways we are all lost, all searching for a norm that doesn’t exist. This character is trying, faltering, becoming and becoming. She doesn’t know how to “fit in.” At times, she is irritating. Yet, the appealing thing about her is that she keeps struggling.

That she is Jewish is central to this story. That her parents are first generation is also central. This book is set in the 50’s and 60’s when men controlled women’s lives; yet, the protagonist’s mother is a successful professional as is her father. Both are emotionally absent. She has let both define her, so this is a journey toward the self. Sometimes, I wanted to shake her, but she, like each of us, had to find her own way.

Rebecca Kaiser Gibson is a poet and her prose is luminous. I savored every word.

  • Sandell Morse Author, 2 books

I was given a copy of this from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Does no one write books with narratives anymore? The last three books I’ve read have all been some sort of choppy-changey story things. This literally calls itself a novel on the front cover, but is actually a series of vignettes. Maybe they all add up to our main characters life? Maybe this is not about our unnamed main character, but about her mother? I don’t know, but this flips from incident to incident, while our main character is so passive I would describe her as floppy. Just like real life, it doesn’t add up to much and is not really that interesting, although it is so close to being a beautifully written interesting story it just sort of trails about and then finishes.

  • Sharonblk

I really enjoyed this book! I often only get the chance to read before I got to bed so one of the things I loved about the book was its short chapters. I didn’t have to keep re-reading what I had read the night before to remember what had happened in the story! The characters were interesting and it was so fun to picture the narrator throughout her life. I felt like I was on the journey with her!

  • Carolyn M.

Loved the cover of this book and the name of it as well. I felt like this book was beautiful, and you have to read between the lines to find the beauty in this book. The woman has no name, and she is lost. I felt it was written in this format so we could think of ourselves? Our own life? How often do women struggle to fit in at work, school, gym, or social media? We are all lost trying to live a normal life… She goes thru the motions of finding her self, and it is a beautiful journey.

Beautifully written.

  • Illiana Valencia

I was immediately drawn in to the story from the first scene the authors writing is so vivid her characters come to life. I will be recommending this  book and looking forward to more from the author. Her writing is lyrical and the fact that she’s a poet shows in her language.

  • Rhonda Lamoazow 

I enjoyed reading this book. I found myself wondering and pondering what the narrator would do next, what transition she would take in her life. I found it easy to relate to as we all are searching at some point in our lives to find the life we are intended to have and to discover our voices.

  • Lesley A.

Not sure the poetry to novel concept works well. It was hard to care about the narrator and her disparate experiences, especially since she seemed to exercise hardly any agency. It felt unmoored and drifting, and almost more theoretical than real.

  • Mary C. 

A novel that reads in many ways like a memoiristic journal–it’s highly episodic, and we’re deeply immersed in the first-person narrator’s perspective throughout.

  • Erika Driefus

An interesting thing happened to me in reading this novel. I found myself about 1/4 of the way through this book thinking,I’m bored, I wasn’t finding the story interesting and I put the book down. Then all of a sudden a phrase that I had read would pop back up in my head and I would think wow that was beautiful so I found myself going back and picking the book back up and began to read again. I realized I couldn’t put it down because there was so much beauty in the words. I not sure today I could actually tell you the story but I know I can tell you that the beauty of the words kept me reading and I am now rereading it again. This writer writes with such a command of words to literally make her story sing. I can’t wait for her next story.

  • Janice R.

From the opening chapter, it was hard to put this novel down: a novel that is gripping not because of what is withholds (through tensions created by suspense) but by the narrative compression, sensual and emotional texture, and surprises in how the story unfolds. A novel written like a memoir, it is the story of the “sentimental education” of a young Jewish-American woman at loose in the larger world, as she navigates her own innocence and learns from her experience ultimately finding her way. That said, this novel was uniquely satisfying in a way that I ultimately find it hard to identify. I immediately pressed it on a friend, who had the same experience. “It was wonderful,” she texted me after. “Short chapters that say so much. Strong characters that leave you wondering about them.” Yes. That. Highly recommended!

  • DCH

This book draws the reader along for a journey that is both heartbreaking and uplifting. A young woman’s trauma, as well as her family life, are described clearly and poetically. The pages seem to turn themselves!

  • Debra Golden

Throughout this book I was taken by this woman’s journey toward self. It seems ripe for a sequel as we leave her in mid-life with more to discover in her quest for self-actualization. I could identify with her struggles moving through significant events in the decades of her life thus far. There were times I wanted to tell her of her worth, intelligence, giftedness as she experienced the pain of growing. The beautifully descriptive writing, humor and restraint absorbed me as I traveled with this woman’s search for a peaceful resting place.

  • Christine E.

The author is a poet and essayist, and this debut novel reads as a little of both. Bite sized pieces of life are offered and interestingly interwoven, interpreted and presented. An introvert’s witnessing of life unfurls in authentic prose. Reads like memoir …as an extrovert I found this novel fascinating.

  • Elisa S.

A beautiful read, filled with exquisite and startling imagery. It captures the reality of a generation of women on a path to self-discovery.

  • Regina H.

…this book is terrific. As others have said, the author is a poet and her way of perceiving and describing the world is stunning as only a poet, especially one with a mystical bent, can be. I couldn’t put the book down. I was carried by the beauty of the language and the story of this often silent and always observant narrator, who generously invites us to see life through her eyes.

  • TLK

An engrossing novel that keeps returning to my thoughts weeks after I finished it.

  • Alex

I loved it. Particularly enjoyed reading about the narrator’s trips to the deli with her father, and the Seder preparations. The writing about her relationship with Tom brought up memories of my relationships in my twenties. While reading many times I would find myself drifting off thinking about things that happened so long ago and that I had not thought of for eons!

Coming of age stories from an American Jewish girl. I found the Passover chapter was particularly powerful, as well as the first chapter but… slowly lost interest. The first chapter about her trip to Israel was an incredible build up and yet, the chapter on Israel ends with her arrival. There isn’t one story about her summer there. There is barely any dialogue, so the narration feels like a memoir which is fine except when the main character is speaking somehow the voice doesn’t match. I don’t see the point of dividing the book into parts, years, and also chapters when the narrator going back and forth in time in almost every chapter by recalling memories. You can tell this it written by a poet but at this time I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

  • Statia Betman

Amazing depiction of a woman drifting through her life, lacking a strong internal compass, but with a real sense that she was moving towards strength.

  • Nancy Dee

“Different from most novels because of its impressionistic, accruing moments, vignettes, and scenes, this is a book that grabs one subtly and surely. The mother is especially vivid, as is the mix of impulsivity and passivity in the young main character. We are inside her head, not knowing more than she does how wrong things are, even as simultaneously we are outsiders looking in and knowing full well things are not right. Throughout, atmospherically, depictions of light and texture and other sensual observations are full of poetry.”

  • Alice B. Fogel, former Poet Laureate of NH