Entering Normal

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In the tradition of The Good Mother and The Deep End of the Ocean, Anne D. LeClaire delivers a heartbreaking–and breathtaking–novel of two very different but equally loving mothers who face the most painful of losses and then find the courage not only to go on but to find meaning and hope in their lives.

Rose Nelson is a middle-aged woman with a broken past, a sorrow from which she cannot recover. Secretly guilty about her role in her ...
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In the tradition of The Good Mother and The Deep End of the Ocean, Anne D. LeClaire delivers a heartbreaking–and breathtaking–novel of two very different but equally loving mothers who face the most painful of losses and then find the courage not only to go on but to find meaning and hope in their lives.

Rose Nelson is a middle-aged woman with a broken past, a sorrow from which she cannot recover. Secretly guilty about her role in her teenaged son’s death five years ago, she has sealed herself off from life, enveloped by a grief that has slowly eaten away at her relationship with her husband.

Against her will, Rose is drawn into the world she has avoided when Opal Gates and her five-year-old son, Zack, move in next door. Determined to start an independent life for herself, twenty-year-old Opal has left her family and the father of her son in North Carolina. But when she quickly begins an affair with Tyrone Miller, a part-time mechanic and local musician, Opal unwittingly breaks the tacit rules of both her family and her new hometown.

Initially, Rose cannot bear the sight of Opal and her son. But later when Zack is injured, she instinctively lies to protect Opal from a single mistake that changes the lives of everyone involved.

Faced with a custody suit brought by Zack’s father and her own parents, Opal faces a trial in which each choice she has made will be used as ammunition in the battle to take Zack away from her.

Confronting such devastating loss and the questions it poses are at the heart of Entering Normal. How does one go on after great tragedy? What is a family? What sacrifices must a motherbe willing to make for her child? And how can a good mother sometimes make bad choices?

Entering Normal is a story of family, a novel about courage, loss, risk, and betrayal. It is a story that goes to the heart of love.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In a tale that resonates with heartfelt emotion, Anne LeClaire weaves a spellbinding story of tragic endings and hopeful beginnings in Entering Normal. When 20-year-old Opal leaves her hometown with her five-year-old son to escape her overbearing family and the child’s young and seemingly indifferent father, she settles in the Massachusetts town of Normal. Living next door is Rose Nelson, a mother who’s been mourning the death of her teenaged son for six years. Opal and Rose couldn’t be more different, and Rose’s first impressions of Opal and her lifestyle are hardly flattering, particularly when Opal starts seeing the town’s bad boy. But when Opal is forced to fight against both her parents and her ex-boyfriend in a custody battle, Rose becomes an unlikely ally. For, in the end, it’s not their differences that matter, but the one thing they share in common -- the fierce and undeniable love of a mother for her child.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An emotional wallop comparable to that produced by Sue Miller's The Good Mother or Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World awaits readers of LeClaire's latest (after Sideshow, etc.). In the small town of Normal, Mass., Rose Nelson has never ceased grieving over the accidental death of her teenage son, Todd. Years of unremitting grief and compulsive housecleaning have dismayed and frustrated her devoted husband, Ned, who tries to lose himself in work at the filling station he owns. Rose notices a peculiar itch around a mole that could indicate cancer, but tries to dismiss it because she doesn't trust drugs or doctors. At the same time, 20-year-old Opal Gates arrives in town with her young son, Zack, in tow. On the lam from her boyfriend, Billy, and her nagging mother in New Zion, N.C., stubborn, flighty Opal has landed in Normal because that's how far exactly three full tanks of gas have taken her chance and signs are central to her life. When she rents the house next door to the Nelsons, prudent Rose observes that "girls like Opal suck trouble to them" and resolves not to get involved. Though striving for independence and ambivalent about a new romance, Opal does seem fated to attract trouble. First, Zack breaks his arm when she sneaks out to the store while he's sleeping; then Billy, with Opal's parents' help, files a custody suit. The tentative friendship that slowly develops between Opal and Rose sustains both women as they face new obstacles and old demons, and the saga of these endearing (if at times frustrating) characters will hold readers' interest right up to the bittersweet ending. Agent, Deborah Schneider. (June 6) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-LeClaire's first novel is a poignant mixture of love, loss, compassion, guilt, tolerance, and consequences. Opal, the 20-year-old unwed mother of 5-year-old Zack, has run away from home to escape her critical mother and Zack's father. Composed of equal parts na vet , sagacity, original thinking, and love for her son, the young woman feels that she has been given a sign to flee exactly as far as three tanks of gas will take her, which is to the town of Normal, MA. There she meets Rose, who is middle-aged and reserved-the opposite of Opal-and still in deep mourning for her teenaged son killed in a car accident five years earlier. While Opal could use a dash of Rose's restraint, Rose needs to stop blaming herself and resume living. Zack's father sues for custody of the boy, merely to show Opal who is boss. She fights it and Rose steps in to help after having seen how much Opal loves the child despite her shortage of parenting skills. Opal finds a new boyfriend, lower class with a heart of gold, and is unable to resist his charms, both in and out of bed, thus threatening her custody case. Rose's husband dies suddenly of a heart attack, and the two women end up helping one another through their respective ordeals. YAs will learn much here about human nature, the lessons leavened by Opal's offbeat thinking.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345445728
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/29/2001
  • Edition description: FIRST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 289
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.88 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1


Ned is snoring, a thick thunder that rolls up from his chest. His arm is flung over Rose’s ribs, and she takes a breath against the heft of it, the pressure that recently seems to have increased.

Back in the middle of summer, she mentioned getting twin beds, but his response was sharp. Typical Ned. “Whadda you crazy?” She explained how his arm made it hard for her to breathe, how she felt pinned down by it. “We’ve slept in the same bed for thirty-five years, Rosie,” he said, his gaze level. “Exactly when did my arm get so heavy?” Not willing to go where that subject might lead, she dropped it flat.

He snores again, a long, rippling snort with a catch in the middle, like he is swallowing his breath. It’s a wonder more women don’t kill their husbands. Half asleep, she imagines herself picking up the pillow, holding it over his open mouth.

What on earth is the matter with her, thinking something crazy like that? Ned is a good man. Where she would be without him she hates to think. She gives him a slight nudge, just enough to make him stop snoring, but not enough to wake him. The last thing in the world she needs right now is for him to wake and ask her what’s wrong.

What’s wrong?

This is a question she doesn’t want him to ask, not when all that is wrong swirls through the room, hangs above her face like smoke. The digital clock on the nightstand glows 1:40, red numerals that remind her of eyes, the alert eyes of some nocturnal animal. The time changes to 1:41. She wishes they still had their old dial-face clock, the one that didn’t needresetting every time there was a power failure. Very carefully she lifts Ned’s arm from its hold across her ribs and scratches her stomach, hard.

It’s still there. It’s bigger. Maybe.

The itchy spot first appeared toward the end of September, the same week Opal Gates and her boy moved into the house next door. At first Rose figured it was an insect bite of some kind, or dry skin, what with the furnace coming on in the evening now. Yesterday she finally took a reluctant look at it—she doesn’t much like looking at her stomach—and even without her reading glasses she was able to see the small, raised welt right over the mole on her stomach. Red circled out from the brown center. Definitely a bite she decided, pushing away darker possibilities conjured up by the Cancer Society leaflets she’s read in Doc Blessing’s waiting room, their bold letters enumerating the Seven Deadly Signs.

She doesn’t think it is anything significant. If something important was going on in your body, you’d know it. No, she’s sure it’s just an insect bite. They are into October now, late for mosquitoes, but it’s been a particularly mild fall, the first frost not coming until the last of September.

She lies in the dark, reminded suddenly of the mosquito bites she used to get summers at Crystal Lake when she was a girl, great welts that rose on her arms and legs and ankles until she looked like she had a tropical disease. “Don’t scratch,” her mother would say as she swabbed them with calamine lotion. “It makes it worse.” Rose scratched the bites until they bled. Then, the summer she was sixteen, she fell in love with her best friend’s cousin, and just like that she stopped scratching mosquito bites. Instead she dug her thumbnail directly across the swollen spot and then again in the opposite direction, forming the shape of a cross, her magic remedy, better than calamine.

Lord, she hasn’t thought about those things in years. Rachel’s cousin. The thin, dark boy from out of town who made all their mothers edgy. What was his name? Randy? Roy? She struggles futilely to reclaim it from the chasm of memory. His name she can’t dredge up, but the image of him surfaces as if she had seen him only last week. This was the summer of Elvis—someone else who made their mothers nervous—and he wore his hair in a DA just like the singer. He drove a motorcycle and—even in summer—dressed all in black. Rose remembers his leather jacket, the zippers at the wrists. The risks she had taken for him. She remembers the night she lied to her mother, the first falsehood she can recall telling, how she said she was going to Rachel’s and had pedaled her blue Raleigh over to the lake where he waited. When he kissed her, his tongue pushed insistently between her lips, filling her with a confusion of fear and desire—startling, hot desire—until she opened her mouth to him. As if, even in sleep, he can read her mind, Ned’s arm drops back across her ribs, tightens its hold.

It was on the same spot at Crystal Lake, enfolded by the scent of pine and her cologne, that Ned asked her to marry him. Two years after she kissed the boy with the Elvis hair, she lay in Ned’s arms, let him caress her, heard him promise to love her forever, eagerly returned the vow.

Forever. What is forever? How long has it been since she believed it possible to hold on to someone or something for eternity? How could she have known then that love is not as resilient as one might think? That loss and pain and life take a toll beyond what she could have imagined? That Ned’s sinewy arms, which held her so tenderly that summer night by the lake, would grow cumbersome over the years?

Crystal Lake. When she was a child, long before she lay in Ned’s young arms or before she kissed a dangerous dark-haired boy whose name she has forgotten, years before she taught Todd how to swim in its water, she and Rachel would go ice skating there. Once, while tightening her skates, she lost a glove, a red mitten knitted by her grandmother that one of the older boys swooped up and skated away with. By the time she went home, her fingers were deadened with the cold. At first it didn’t hurt, just a tingling numbness as if they had gone to sleep; but later, when her mother took her fingers between her palms and rubbed the heat back into chilled flesh, chafed the numbness away, then the pain began.

The itching is worse now. She raises Ned’s arm carefully, edges out of bed, almost makes it.


“Bathroom. Go back to sleep.” She freezes, willing his breath- ing to return to its heavy, half-snoring rhythm, then, using the il- lumination from the night-light at the top of the stairs, makes her way to the hall. The shadowy outline of Todd’s door beckons in the dim light, and she almost allows herself to give in, to sit in his room and wait.

It has been a long time.

Months have passed since she sat there and hoped for a sign from Todd. Hoped, not prayed. She has long since lost her belief in the power of prayers or God; the most she can hold on to is hope, and even that has dimmed lately. Five years. If she is going to get some sign from him, feel some connection, wouldn’t it have come by now? But even the dimming of active hope does not bring the resolution or the peace she might have expected, only more pain. She fears this deficiency of hope is bringing her one more step closer to really losing him. Memory and grief are all she has left, and after a while even memory dims. In spite of her attempts to hold on in her mind, the whole of him is beginning to fade.

In the bathroom she catches sight of herself in the mirror and, without glasses, sees a younger version of herself, her face firmer, without lines. She is trying to learn to look at herself with corrected vision, trying to see the truth of her aging face, which looks more and more like her mother’s. She opens the cabinet and removes the bottle of Jergens, slathers it across her belly, easing, for the moment, the itch of the mole that woke her earlier. She returns the lotion to the cabinet, automatically brushes her hand over the counter. The green Formica is specked with tiny black dots, the pattern a mistake. The dark grains remind her of the flecks that rim the sink after Ned shaves.

on her way back to her room, she checks the street. Next door, at the Montgomery place, light spills from the dining room. At this hour. It is nearly 2:00 a.m. If Louise Montgomery still lived there, Rose would be tempted to ring over, see if everything was all right, but she has no intention of getting involved with that girl. And yet, what in the name of heaven is she doing up in the middle of the night? When does she sleep? Rose supposes she should find comfort in the fact that Opal Gates is awake, that she is not the only one unable to sleep this night, but she feels no nocturnal bond with her new neighbor. In the few weeks since Opal moved in, it has become clear that there is nothing but tribulation in store for that one. All you need do is take one quick look and you can see the whole story. Plain as day. Girls like Opal suck trouble to them.

She leaves the window and returns to their bed. Ned snores on peacefully. The relief the lotion gave is short-lived, and she gives her stomach another quick scratch. Perhaps it’s an allergy. Or shingles. Shingles. Such an odd name for a disease. Who decides what to call an illness, anyway? She had a second cousin over in Athol who had shingles. The woman was married to a farmer, a nervous little man who worried about everything. Notice it was the wife who got the itching. She tries to remember what she has heard about shingles, something about if the inflamed skin encircles your waist, girdling it like a belt, you will die. Can this be true, or is it only an old wives’ tale? It seems to her that her cousin died of a heart attack, but she can’t recall for sure. She hitches her nightgown up slowly and risks two or three real gouges. Ned doesn’t move a muscle, and she is grateful for that. She doesn’t need his questions about what she is scratching. No doubt if he knew he’d take right over, have her at Doc’s before she could stop to tie her shoes. She doesn’t know. Maybe she should go. But the itch is worse at night. If it were really serious, wouldn’t it bother her during the day? She only has to get through the night, hold tight to the thought of dawn, and she will be all right. She certainly doesn’t want to go see Doc.

For a while, after the accident, when she couldn’t cook or do much of anything around the house and heaven knows she didn’t want Ned touching her, Doc gave her some little yellow pills to take. She didn’t want them, but under Ned’s insistence she caved in. They were tiny, octagonal-shaped pills potent beyond what their size suggested, making everything in sight seem sallow, jaundiced. Wavy and dull. After a while this was worse than anything, so she quit taking them. Plus all those drugs are chemicals, and Rose doesn’t trust chemicals. Who knows what they are really doing to a person? No, she thinks, better to wait and not let on to Ned about the red-edged mole that itches.

She twists her head on the pillow and looks at her husband, studies his face in the slippery light of the moon. Even in sleep he looks tired. She doesn’t need her glasses to see the deep lines that etch the skin between his eyes and make gutters from his nose to his chin. He is fifty-seven. We’re getting old, she thinks. Her heart almost softens.

Sometimes she wonders why it is so easy for Ned. Isn’t he angry about all the things that have been taken from them, simple things they have every right to expect would come to them, like Todd growing up, marrying, having a child of his own? For five years she has tracked all the things that will never happen, bitter anniversaries that keep grief alive and sharp but that she cannot stop her mind from recording: Todd’s senior prom. His high school graduation. The fall he would have entered college. Doesn’t Ned ever think about these things?

Once, three years ago, they were staring at some program on television and she blurted, “He would be in college now.”

“For Christ’s sake!” Ned shouted. The green recliner snapped to an upright position, and he stalked from the room. As far as he is concerned, Todd is over, closed subject.

Men are different, she thinks. But no, look at Claire Covington. The summer after their son drowned, she was back swimming at the lake, in the very water that still held the molecules of Brian Covington’s last breath. But maybe, Rose thinks in sudden inspiration, maybe submerging herself in the water was Claire’s way of getting close to her son. Lord knows, Rose can understand that. Then she pictures Claire laughing, splashing in the water, dressed in a bathing suit a good yard shy of the amount of material appropriate to a woman of her age. No, when Claire Covington went to the lake, it wasn’t to merge with whatever remained there of her son.

although she cannot remember falling asleep, she must have dozed off, for the next time she looks the clock reads 6:00. Beside her, she feels Ned move. Soon he will get up, releasing her. She’ll take a shower, let cold water flow over her stomach, cooling it down.

Ned moans softly; then he’s awake. This is how he does it every morning. One minute he’s asleep, the next he’s talking.

“Time to get up,” he says.

“Yes,” she says.

She lifts the weight of his arm from her ribs and takes a little breath, inhaling dawn. In the morning light, for one brief moment, she can almost believe she has only imagined the itch, can almost believe that she has already experienced her lifetime’s allotment of pain and grief.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Copyright 2001 by Anne D. LeClaire
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Reading Group Guide

1. When the novel opens, Opal is truly "Entering Normal." What is the significance of the novel's title? What is Opal's sense of the town, in contrast to the viewpoints of Rose and Ned? Is the locale aptly named? Why or why not?

2. Entering Normal shifts between points of view, giving voice to Opal, Rose, and Ned. How does this narrative choice impact the story? Do you feel that the story is evenly divided between these three characters? Why or why not?

3. Opal takes most of the significant steps of her life--from her dalliances with men to her move from North Carolina--because of signs. Are these real or imagined guideposts to her life? How do other characters in the story use signs in less explicit ways?

4. How is the theme of "fate vs. choice" explored throughout the book? Are Rose, Ned, and Opal vibrant participants in their own fate, or do they let life choose for them? How?

5. Rose immediately labels Opal as a girl who "sucks trouble to her." Is this assessment true, or is Opal more a product of circumstances? How does Rose's instant reaction to her new next-door neighbor shed light on the feelings she harbors about herself and those around her?

6. From the start of Entering Normal, Ned and Rose's marriage is in trouble. How have their different approaches to grief driven them apart? From their separate memories, how do you envision their lives before Todd's death?

7. Although Rose patiently waits for her dead son, Todd, to return and refuses to let go of his memory, her only glimpse of him is in a flashback. Why does the author use this technique? What do we learn about Rose'scharacter--and about her relationships--from the episode?

8. Ned discovers that Rose has withdrawn from her writing class, and then lied to him about it. Why doesn't he confront her about this deception? How does Ned's assumption that Rose has been chastised as an inadequate writer shed light on his perception of her?

9. Although she's an unwed mother, Opal views Zack as the one perfect element to come out of her relationship with Billy. How does this view compare and contrast with Rose's relationship with Todd and with Ned?

10. In what ways is Opal similar to Rose as a mother, and in which ways would their parenting techniques diverge? How does Zack remind her of Todd, and in which ways is Zack different?

11. Neither Zack nor Todd ever had a sibling. Ethel, Ned's sister, is depicted as selfish and terrible. How is the motif of only children significant in the novel? How would each of the boys' lives have been different if he had been raised with a brother or sister?

12. In one of the book's most pivotal events, Rose lies to the doctor at the hospital, insisting that she was present when Zack fell and broke his arm. What would compel Rose to reach out to Opal? In what ways, other than motherhood, does she identify with her neighbor?

13. When Zack injures himself, Opal blames herself for not being able to control her "hunger." What types of hunger, both food-related and otherwise, spur conflict in the novel? How is Zack's fractured arm a symbol for larger destruction?

14. A snowstorm forces Zack to stay with Ned and Rose on New Year's Eve. How is that night a turning point for all of the characters? How does the friendship between Zack and Ned affect Rose? How does it hint at the coming relationship between Rose and Zack?

15. Opal first becomes involved with Ty because of a sexual longing; Rose hasn't slept with her husband since her son's death, and she flees when Anderson kisses her. How do each of these attitudes impact the women's lives? Is sex viewed as a necessity or a luxury in this novel?

16. When Billy files for custody of Zack, Opal dismisses Billy as someone who wants what he cannot have. How accurate is this judgment? In which ways is Opal similar to Billy?

17. When he visits Trudy's diner, Ned consciously compares his wife with the waitress. Trudy admits her jealousy of Ned's wife; how is Rose, in turn, envious of Trudy? How has Trudy dealt with the death of a loved one, and how does her attitude compare to that of Rose?

18. The writing teacher, Anderson Jeffrey, won't stop contacting Rose. In your opinion, what parts of their relationship exist in reality, and which lurk in Rose's imagination? What elements of Rose's personality are unleashed by Anderson's attention and by her writing? What other outside influences shape Rose's transformation?

19. In the custody hearing, Opal's own parents side with Billy about her incompetence as a mother. What reasons would they give for their actions? In which ways is Opal a product of the failings of her own childhood? How does Melva's relationship with Opal compare to Opal's with Zack?

20. Ned is expected to recover fully from his heart attack, but he unexpectedly passes away. How does this event parallel the death of his son? How does Ned's death provide a catalyst for Rose's rebirth?

21. While Opal wins custody of her son, she must return to her hometown. How do you envision that Opal will assert her own independence while living under the thumb of her parents and brother? How will Rose help her attain that goal?

22. Why do you think that Rose volunteers to go to North Carolina with Opal and Zack? Do you think that Rose is truly free of her ghosts, whether real or imagined?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2005

    Great Book

    Just finished reading this book and any book that can make you cry or can evoke any emotion from you is worth recommending. It was a great story and definitely worth the read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2005

    total delight

    This is a novel you will not want to end. It is very well written and will evoke emotion from even the most 'hard hearted Hannah'! LeClaire is a must read author. A rare and wonderful read. Do not miss it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2004

    Mom vs. Mom?

    A wonderful story. I don't like to give away how stories are told but I have to say I wasn't expecting what happened in this book. I am amazed at how much I loved these characters. This is one of those books you don't want to end. This was my first book by Leclaire and it will not be my last. She is a wonderful heartfelt writer that makes me excited to find her books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2003

    I've read better....

    It wasn't bad, but not what I'd call a 'page-turner' by any stretch of the imagination. I did find myself curious about the lives of these two very different women, Opal and Rose, but when the book was over I didn't feel like I knew Rose at all. Her character was so 'closed' emotionally that it was hard for me to get a clearcut image of her in my mind, whereas Opal I could see clear as day. I was glad that Rose finally opened up her heart to love again, although it took a tragedy for her to realize how much of life she had truly missed. Overall, there were some good lessons to be learned from the lives of these women. The book isn't a 'must-read', but it's not a waste of time either.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2002

    A great book

    This story is one that you will find you can't wait to turn the next page. I thought it was wonderfully put together, with the perspectives of the 3 main characeters, creating such an image - you feel you are literally watching this story unfold. A great book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2001


    Thsi book is wonderful and you truely know these two women and want to be their friend after reading it. This hte first of her books I have read and plan to read the rest. Very impressive-FANTASTIC!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2001

    Moving Tale of Motherhood

    Motherhood is the tie that binds Rose and Opal, mothers who are miles apart in years, lifestyle and situations. Rose is mourning her son; Opal is striving to build a new life for herself and her little boy. Yet they are able to find the common ground where they can discover new friendship and hope. As the author of a book for mothers, NEW PSALMS FOR NEW MOMS: A KEEPSAKE JOURNAL, I believe that our love for our children is a universal bond that all mothers share. Enjoy this inspiring story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2001


    Entering Normal will suck you into the lives of 2 women and leave you wanting more. It moves quickly and once you pick it up putting it down takes extrodinary effort.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    powerful inspirational tale

    Five years has passed since Todd died and Rose Nelson waits every minute she breathes for a sign from her son. Rose remains in a constant of grief and disbelief since the accident took her child¿s life. Her relationship with her spouse Ned has never recovered from the stunning tragedy. <P> Opal Gates and her five year old son Zack has moved next door to Rose after fleeing her family and the father of her son to start life anew. Rose would prefer to ignore the single mother and the child because she brings back memories of a happier time rather than the endless numbing she continually feels. However, Rose is soon drawn into Opal¿s fight to keep custody of Zack even though it means opening up her heart to love and hope, emotions that she thought died with Todd¿s death. <P> ENTERING NORMAL is a powerful inspirational tale that never tries to explain why bad things happen to good people, but instead provides a message of hope. People grieve a loss of a loved one, but always need someone to care about and be cared for to remain human. Anne D. LeClaire provides her uplifting message inside a strong and entertaining story line starring real people who easy could be a reader, a relative, a friend, or me. <p>Harriet Klausner

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