Normal People by Sally Rooney
At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers – one they are determined to conceal.
A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the
Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.
No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depending on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.
This will be a polarizing book. I mean, I think I liked it. And I say “liked it” in the sense that it made me very miserable. It is a quiet character study, almost a novel but not quite, and it is a profoundly lonely and depressing love story.
I didn’t begin by liking it. Normal People follows two characters – Marianne and Connell – through adolescence and into early adulthood, and they begin by being the user-precocious teenagers who read Proust and Marx for fun. It took a while for me to settle into their story. My initial impression was that this would be some kind of John Green for adults, which is not something that floats my particular boat.
Without fully realizing it though, this book had crept quietly under my skin. The relationship between Marianne and Connell is angst, sure, but it felt painfully real. They are so flawed, marred by unlikable characteristics, and yet, I could not stop caring about them.
Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty hurts not only the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profoundly about yourself by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.
The story is just about the two of them and their relationship. In high school, Marianne is a smart and wealthy girl, but is socially ostracized and emotionally abused at home, whereas Connell is working class, but very popular. Connell’s mum works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. They begin a secret sexual relationship that falls apart when Connell fears his friends will find out. The compelling dynamic between them drives the story– issues of class and social status cause much conflict.
In college, the two meet again. This time, Marianne is popular, and Connell is feeling increasingly depressed. The two of them lean on each other time and again as they move through a social world filled with social expectations. There’s a bit of a When Harry Met Sally vibe, except that this book is more soul-destroying.
Nothing had meant more to Rob than the approval of others; to be thought well of, to be a person of status. He would have betrayed any confidence, and kindness, for the promise of social acceptance.
There’s a clear criticism of our constant need to impress and perform for others in a world that grows ever more connected. Much of the tragedy that befalls Marianne and Connell is caused by other people, peer pressure, and social expectations. It is very sad to think that someone might give up who they love the most because they can’t deal with how it makes them look to others.
The pair’s inability to adequately communicate is frustrating but feels realistic. I was on the verge of tearing my hair out at all the things left unsaid in this book, but I think it was a good kind of frustration. The kind that comes from caring too much.
I feel like there is any number of reasons I could have hated Normal People, but I didn’t. I actually kinda loved it. It’s a weird, awkward, depressing novel about a connection formed between two very different people who find exactly what they need – and perhaps a lot that they don’t – in each other.
CW: sexual assault; domestic abuse; drug use; casual racism (called out); depression; anxiety; suicide & suicidal ideation.
Marchpane Sally Rooney is the real deal
I have lavished normal People with praise from critics, long listed for the Man Booker Prize, and adapted for television by the BBC. And that’s just in its first week of publication!
All that attention will, no doubt, attract quite a few readers who would not ordinarily touch this subject with a barge pole. Because this book:
A) Is about young people
B) Is a love story (but not a ‘romance novel’)
C) Contains a fair bit of sex (which is crucial to the storytelling, btw, and is not graphic)
All of which (possibly also the fact that the author is a 27-year-old woman) means that Normal People will inevitably be dismissed by some as frivolous. It isn’t. This is a confident, accomplished, and serious work.
Of Rooney’s debut, Conversations with Friends, I said in my review it ‘occasionally scrapes close to the bone’. Well, Normal People cuts to the core.
Normal People are not out to inspire, instruct, entertain, or talk down to anyone, which makes it something of a refreshing anomaly in current fiction about junior people. It is a novel (for anyone, young or old) that presents the truth of youthful experiences without the filters of nostalgia or sentimentality. It invites you to inhabit the psyche of someone else–two someones else: Connell and Marianne–to identify with them and to feel their pain and turmoil. For the reader who connects to that, it is wracking.
The story focuses only on the pivotal moments for these two characters, jumping forward three weeks, six months, or five minutes, as needed, to excise all the uneventful bits of life and leave us with the most emotionally intense super cut possible. It follows them from high school in a compact town, through their years at a university in Dublin, as the dynamic between them shifts with their surroundings and social circle. They’re not officially ‘together’ the whole time or even most of the time, but they always figure in each other’s lives significantly.
Sally Rooney writes with such precision that this all feels painfully true. She conjures the tension and emotion in a scene just from the way someone wrings out a dish sponge; she conveys the full weight of feeling from a look or a shrug. In Rooney’s imagining, Connell and Marianne as separate entities are less important than the interplay between them–their relationship dynamic and the influence each of them has on shaping the other, that’s the actual stuff of this book:
“How strange to feel herself so under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depending on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”
There’s an irony here, and self-conscious posturing (though not nearly as much as in CWF), but earnestness, truth and kindness. Besides the central relationship are issues of class and intellectual integrity. It’s an astute look at the rebuild of self that teenagers undergo in the transition from school to uni, how it allows some to thrive while others stumble, and in some ways is just an illusion. So there’s hype and there’s a backlash to the hype, and Normal People will resonate powerfully with some readers and not at all for others. If you like a minutely observed novel about people and feelings that isn’t mawkish, I’d say give it a go.