Practicing Normal
by Cara Sue Achterberg

Story Plant paperback ISBN: 978-1-61188-244-5
Fiction Studio Books e-book ISBN: 978-1-945839-01-6
Publication date: June 7, 2017 –– 352 pages

“Does facing the truth beat living a lie? In Practicing Normal, Cara Sue Achterberg has given us a smart story that is both a window and a mirror, about the extraordinary pain — and the occasional gifts — of an ordinary life.”
– Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean

The houses in Pine Estates are beautiful McMansions filled with high-achieving parents, children on the fast track to top colleges, all of the comforts of modern living, and the best security systems money can buy. Welcome to normal upper-middle-class suburbia.

The Turners know in their hearts that they're anything but normal. Jenna is a high-schooler dressed in black who is fascinated with breaking into her neighbors' homes, security systems be damned. Everett genuinely believes he loves his wife . . . he just loves having a continuing stream of mistresses more. JT is a genius kid with Asperger's who moves from one obsession to the next. And Kate tries to manage her family, manage her mother (who lives down the street), and avoid wondering why her life is passing her by.

And now everything is changing for them. Jenna suddenly finds herself in a boy-next-door romance she never could have predicted. Everett's secrets are beginning to unravel on him. JT is getting his first taste of success at navigating the world. And Kate is facing truths about her husband, her mother, and her father that she might have preferred not to face.

Life on Pine Road has never been more challenging for the Turners. That's what happens when you're practicing normal.

Combining her trademark combination of wit, insight, and tremendous empathy for her characters, Cara Sue Achterberg has written a novel that is at once familiar and startlingly fresh.


“What does it really mean to have a normal life? Achterberg’s stunning new novel explores how a family can fracture just trying to survive, and how what makes us different is also what can make us most divine.”
– Caroline Leavitt, author of Cruel Beautiful World and the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow


Cara Sue AchterbergCara Sue Achterberg is a writer and blogger who lives in New Freedom, PA with her family and an embarrassing number of animals. Her first novel, I’m Not Her, was a national bestseller, as was her second, Girls’ Weekend. Cara’s nonfiction book, Live Intentionally, is a guide to the organic life filled with ideas, recipes, and inspiration for living a more intentional life. Cara is a prolific blogger, occasional cowgirl, and busy mom whose essays and articles have been published in numerous anthologies, magazines, and websites. Links to her blogs, news about upcoming publications, and pictures of her foster dogs can be found at


Practicing Normal takes a deep dive into the dysfunctional dynamics of a ‘picture perfect family.’ A compelling story about the beautiful humanity in the most ordinary of lives: from first love to a marriage on the downward slide to an unexpected family tragedy. Achterberg handles each thread with tender care and we can’t help but root for every member of the Turner family.”
– Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Year


From Practicing Normal:

I wave to Mom as she drives past on her way to Gram’s house. I don’t know why she drives. It’s a perfectly nice day and Gram only lives a couple blocks up the street. She lives in the old part, where the houses are pretty much all one-story brick numbers with window boxes full of plastic flowers. Old people live there. Or young people without much money.

Our end of the street is for the rich people, not that we’re rich people. We just pretend to be. Everett—my dad—makes decent money, I’m pretty sure, but nothing like the money Mr. Braddington pulls in. I should know. I spend plenty of time in the Braddingtons’ house. And today, that’s where I’ll go just as soon as my mom’s car is out of sight, but before the bus pulls up to take me to school.

I don’t see the point of school. Bunch of idiots there. And not just the students; the teachers aren’t such a bright bunch either. It’s a waste of my time. I’m sure I’ll catch hell for it from Everett, but I can’t stomach the jerks today. I grab my backpack and double-time it to the Braddingtons’ house.

I know it’s empty. On a day like today, Mrs. Braddington will be on the golf course teeing off. Wells and Tiffany will have already left in Wells’ fancy corvette, headed to school. I don’t know why they go to the public school. I’m sure the Braddingtons could afford the Country Day School. Wells is a junior, like me. He’s a big deal on the football team. And a state-ranked wrestler. Plus, he runs track. The guy is your all-American dream, if that’s what you’re into.

Tiffany is a freshman. She made waves when she started at Cramer High. Everyone knows she modeled for J.Crew as a kid. She’s cardboard pretty and already hangs with the mean girls in my grade. I guess she’s too good to be an actual freshman.

I’ve seen the pictures of Tiffany in the J.Crew catalogs. They’re blown up poster-size and plastered all over the Braddingtons’ house. There are pictures of Wells, also. In most pictures, he’s holding a trophy. He’s always been beautiful, too. That’s how I think of all of them—the Beautiful Braddingtons. Alliteration, see? I wasn’t snoozing through English class last week.

The Braddingtons have an alarm system, but it’s easy to get around. The control box for the alarm system is in the garage, which has a cat door for their overly obese cat. They’ve had to enlarge it twice. The cat happened into the right family. It’s diabetic and Mrs. Braddington gives it shots every day. I’ve seen the meds and the instructions on the counter.

Getting into the Braddingtons’ is easy as pie. I’m small enough to get through the cat door. I found their security code the first time I stopped in, but even if I hadn’t, I could easily disarm their system since the box is right there next to the door. I could simply pull the wires to the phone and power. I don’t need either.

I learned how to disarm home systems from following Everett around on his job when I was little. He works for a security company. He’s even made geeky YouTube videos. In one of them, he dresses up like a repair guy and shows a customer how a burglar could easily break into his house. He overacts ridiculously, as if he’s some Hollywood star. They still use that video on cable channel advertising. Embarrassing for all of us, but Everett actually watches it pretty much every time it airs.

Today at the Braddingtons’ house, I fix a big bowl of ice cream—Peanut Butter Swirl—and take it to the window seat that looks out over the backyard, which includes a fancy outdoor kitchen, a pool shaped like a tennis racket with a hot tub on the handle (you can swim between the two!), and a golf tee with an enormous backstop. The Braddingtons also have the biggest bird feeder I’ve ever seen. It looks like an old-fashioned hotel with a tin roof and dozens of balconies where the feed comes out. A neon sign on the top of it says, “Fly Right Inn” and holds the extra bird food that automatically refills the feeder whenever it gets low. My gram would probably kill to have a feeder like that. I’ve thought about stealing it for her, but then the Bs would figure out someone’s been here.

Gram is crazy about birds. As in, she’s so crazy she thinks she can talk to birds and they talk to her. I like to mess with my mom sometimes and say shit like, “Maybe she can talk to birds. How would we know—we don’t speak bird.”

“That’s ridiculous, Jenna. No one talks to birds.”

“Sure they do. People talk to birds all the time.” Which is true, right?

“Your grandmother is getting old. She’s confused. She cannot communicate with birds.”

“I just think we aren’t experts. It’s possible. People talk to dolphins all the time.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Sure it is.”

“It doesn’t help your gram to encourage it. She’s struggling to keep her mind sound as she ages.”

This is Mom’s way of saying Gram is going nuts. Mom should know since she spends every day over there taking care of her. If anyone’s crazy, it’s Mom. She has no life because she has to be there to feed Gram all her meals and clean every possible speck that ever lands in her house, or Gram will start yelling about the mess. She’s better off outside talking to the birds. Her yard has a ten-foot privacy fence, about fifteen bird feeders (that Mom fills EVERY day), and four birdbaths. If I were Mom, I’d park Gram out there first thing in the morning and come back after dark to roll her back inside.

I finish up my ice cream and take my English book to the chaise lounge in the sunroom. That’s my favorite room in the house. Before I go, I’ll wash my dishes and put everything back the way it was, reset the alarm, and slip back out the cat door. Maybe today I’ll visit the seven dwarfs over at Ms. Cassie’s place.

on May 16 • by

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